The Blue State That Gambled on an Early Reopening
“Those rural state population should realize that each of their cases in the Conovirus crisis is different and should be handled completely from a scientific perspective”
On April 20, Colorado’s coronavirus curve was still on an upward trajectory, with some 10,000 cumulative cases reported and nearly 450 deaths. That day, the state’s Democratic first-term governor, Jared Polis, stepped in front of American and Colorado flags in the ornate Palm Room of the governor’s mansion and announced his state would be among the first to reopen its economy.
Polis’ announcement received little notice outside Colorado, but it set the state apart: He moved to lift stay-at-home orders not only well before other Democratic-leaning states, but ahead of Republican-led Georgia, Florida and Texas.
The early reopening earned Polis an invitation to the White House. In a Cabinet room meeting on May 13, President Donald Trump lauded Polis for getting his state back to work, and Colorado’s junior senator, Cory Gardner, one of the most endangered Republicans up for reelection in November, praised the governor’s response to the pandemic. Polis, who wore a navy Colorado-themed mask, briefed the president on his reopening plans and acknowledged the federal government’s procurement of tens of thousands of virus tests for his state.
As states across the country have begun to peel back stay-at-home orders and other restrictions, it has been Republican governors, especially Trump-friendly ones, who have led the way and gotten most of the attention—and criticism from those who say they’ve moved too quickly. So, how did Polis, a millionaire tech entrepreneur turned five-term Democratic congressman, end up in their company?
Colorado hasn’t suffered as high a coronavirus case count as many blue states in the East and the Midwest. But it was hit early. After outbreaks in the state’s popular skiing destinations, Polis, a progressive with a libertarian streak, quickly shut down the ski areas and, eventually, the rest of the state. The state’s economy has taken a significant blow, with nearly 500,000 Coloradans filing for unemployment since Polis enacted his stay-at-home order on March 25, and about a quarter of workers in hospitality, entertainment and recreation losing their positions. The losses wiped out the past 5½ years of jobs gains; the state’s 11.3 percent April unemployment rate is the highest since records were first kept in 1976.
Voters in Colorado—which has leaned blue in recent elections, but where 40 percent are registered as unaffiliated, and Democrats and Republicans claim 30 percent each—have generally supported Polis’ response to the crisis. But some, especially in more rural areas, pressured him to relax the restrictions. The day before his April 20 briefing, several hundred protesters crowded onto the lawn of the state Capitol. On the Eastern plains, Republican state legislators also demanded that their counties be able to make their own decisions to fight the virus. At the same time, some Democratic lawmakers expressed concern that Polis made decisions so quickly that they were left flatfooted.
But Polis says his decisions about reopening have been driven not by political pressure from the right or left, but by science. In an interview on May 19, he told me that instead of looking most closely at case and death counts, which lag behind the reality on the ground, he and his administration were focused on bringing down the virus’ transmission rate from one person infecting up to four others to one person infecting just one other person, which the state managed in April. As officials added thousands of temporary hospital beds, the governor also closely tracked the daily hospitalization rate, which had begun to slow by the time he made his April 20 announcement.
“We were an early hot spot, and we found it had leveled off,” Polis told me. “Keeping the stay-at-home order any longer wasn’t making progress against the virus.” He added: “Each governor is looking at data in their state. There is no state that has the same epidemiological outlook.”
Polis’ unique approach shows just how differently every state—red, blue or purple—has handled the coronavirus crisis. “When it comes to deciding what the threshold is for reopening, the metrics are all over the place. States are using what works for them,” says Luisa Franzini, professor and chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the University of Maryland School of Public Health.
In managing the state’s reopening, Polis has also shown how governors can at least try to balance competing political, economic and public health needs, which he has done by allowing individual counties some flexibility if they could meet state health requirements. Since April 27, retail stores, salons, child care facilities, manufacturers and offices across Colorado have been able to open with mandated cleaning protocols and limits on capacity. But the state health department granted Eagle County, home to a number of struggling ski destinations, a waiver to open a few days early. In Denver, meanwhile, Mayor Michael Hancock opted to keep the stay-at-home order in place until May 8. It wasn’t until this week that Polis announced restaurants could open on May 27 for indoor and expanded outdoor dining, with limits on capacity and only if local areas allow it. By that point, about half the state’s 64 counties, mostly places where case counts and hospitalizations remained low, had already been permitted to open restaurants, or other venues, with restrictions.
Just as in other states, some Colorado residents are testing the boundaries of the reopening. Public health researchers warned on May 14 that “recent mobility patterns suggest concerning changes in behavior that may increase transmission.” The proof appeared on Twitter in photos of hundreds of residents escaping record heat on a crowded lakefront beach in a Denver suburb and riverside rocks in Boulder. Epidemiologists now are poring over data to determine whether cases are rising as workers have begun to return to their jobs, and mountain communities, where unemployment reached 20 percent in April, have exhorted second-home owners to come for the summer. Still, Colorado’s vaunted tourism industry remains largely closed, oil and gas companies are shutting in hundreds of wells, and business owners I spoke to say they don’t expect a quick recovery.
Polis, even in discussing the newest reopening guidelines this week, is urging his state’s 5.8 million residents to tread carefully. “It’s how well we succeed in wearing masks, and social distancing in public, and staying in groups of less than 10 people,” he said on Tuesday. “So far, you’ve done an amazing job. If you didn’t do an amazing job, our infection rate would be increasing like it is in other states.”