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”

As China was paralyzed by the virus in early March and nursing home residents in Kirkland, Washington, died with Covid-19 in their systems, Colorado’s ski resorts enjoyed above-average snowfall. Skiers covered most every inch of their skin to protect against freezing temperatures, and the sport felt safe. It wasn’t. On March 5, Polis announced that an out-of-state visitor who had traveled to Italy had tested positive after skiing at Keystone and Vail, making Colorado among the earliest states to get hit by the virus. As mountain communities rushed to quarantine people who had come into contact with the man, Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment opened a drive-up testing center in north Denver. It was quickly overwhelmed.

With cases climbing rapidly, on March 14, the governor ordered the state’s 26 ski areas, a major economic engine, to shut down for a week in the middle their profitable spring break month. The order was later extended, threatening to kill the remainder of the season. Bars, restaurants, gyms, theaters and casinos statewide closed in mid-March under orders from the state’s health department. On March 25, Polis’ big announcement came: Residents with nonessential jobs were required to stay at home. Schools also closed. By that point, Democratic governors in California, Washington, Michigan, New York, Illinois and New Jersey, as well as their GOP counterparts in Idaho, Indiana, Ohio and West Virginia, had all enacted sweeping restrictions.

Polis took a pragmatic, measured approach, keeping Coloradans informed with regular briefings at which he discussed reams of ever-changing data compiled by a Colorado School of Public Health modeling team assembled quickly in the pandemic’s early days. At one such news conference immediately after the stay-at-home order went into effect, the governor warned calmly but urgently that without strict physical distancing measures the state could tally 33,200 deaths by June 1.

“Treat this like you would a tornado or a flood or a wildfire or a hurricane. This is far more serious, and the loss of life is going to be far greater,” he said on March 27, adding the state needed time to secure adequate personal protective equipment, testing supplies, ventilators and hospital beds. “The more people are not heeding advice to stay at home, the longer and more severe this crisis will be.”

The move angered Republican state legislators from rural counties, many of which never recovered jobs lost in the Great Recession. Some conservative lawmakers favored allowing the state’s more than 50 local public health agencies to make decisions to curb the virus individually based on infection rates in their regions. “In our caucus, four of our State Senators represent 78% of Colorado’s land mass—and none of those four were consulted on how an order such as this would affect their rural communities, where your administration’s data shows that the virus is not spreading the way it has in the metro area,” 14 Republican state senators wrote in a March 27 letter. Polis had resisted making the stay-at-home order for days, questioning how it would be enforceable, but he said in a March 25 briefing that county-by-county orders were untenable because people were still congregating at facilities that remained open.

The state’s less populous regions didn’t remain immune for long. Dozens of workers soon fell ill at a JBS USA meat-processing plant, where 6,000 people worked in close proximity, in Greeley, a small city in the northern part of the state. On April 13, Polis announced that the facility would shut down for several weeks for deep cleaning. Meanwhile, nursing homes statewide were also battling outbreaks that sickened hundreds and accounted for more than half the state’s deaths.

Resentment about the statewide restrictions continued to simmer in areas reliant on the shuttered tourism industry, struggling oil and gas operations, or agriculture operations stymied by supply chain disruptions. In Mesa County, in the state’s far west, commenters on Facebook compared local health department officials to Nazis after they had suggested residents report workers who weren’t following orders to wear masks. (Polis, who is Jewish, evinced visible emotion when asked about the comments at a news conference.) In Weld County, home to the JBS plant and the state’s largest oil field, commissioners declared on April 23 that their businesses could reopen in defiance of the state’s stay-at-home order, prompting Polis to threaten to withhold emergency funds.

Impatient with the economic fallout from business closures, many counties, both rural and urban, requested waivers from the state’s health department to reopen certain venues in late April and early May. The state granted variances only if county officials could show their infection rate was slowing and if they had plans in place to ensure distancing and cleaning protocols were followed. In Logan County, officials expressed frustration at the state’s denial of a waiver due to an outbreak of about 400 cases at a prison in Sterling that became the state’s biggest hot spot.

“This state is starting to rebel. Some people are being favored over others,” Republican state Senator Jerry Sonnenberg—a farmer, rancher and feed lot operator who represents 20 percent of the land mass in Colorado—told me before Polis had allowed restaurants to reopen. “There are a number of us that don’t trust the governor’s ability to get a handle on this.” After Logan County modified its request, state health officials granted the variance on May 23.

Yet even as some balked under the constraints of the stay-at-home order, a poll of 1,000 Coloradans showed strong support for the governor’s response to the crisis. The survey, conducted from April 15-21 by Magellan Strategies for Healthier Colorado and the Colorado Health Foundation, found that 64 percent of the those who had lost their jobs, income or paid hours due to the coronavirus said they preferred policies to slow the pandemic’s spread, even if that meant businesses needed to stay closed.

“His political stock has risen,” Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, an advocacy nonprofit, says of Polis. “Any candidate in the general election who dismisses the severity of this pandemic, or who advocates a premature return to the economy, would be at risk. You have two out of three voters saying otherwise.”

Some of Polis’ fellow Democrats, however, noted that they weren’t always given enough notice before rule changes were announced publicly. “There was little communication about the rollout of ‘safer at home’ [Polis’ phrase for the reopening]. It was surprising,” state Senator Julie Gonzales, a Democrat who represents downtown and northwest Denver, said in an interview.

Stephen Fenberg, the Democratic state Senate majority leader, defended Polis. “He hesitated for a minute to do a statewide stay-at-home order, just like I think every governor has, because that’s such a drastic decision,” Fenberg, who represents Boulder, told me. The reopening, he said, has taken “a staggered piece-by-piece approach because of local control, and I think that’s appropriate. The denser, more urban areas are at risk of the virus spreading and rebounding faster than rural areas.”

Is Colorado’s reopening strategy working? Overall, the number of daily reported cases in the state fell to 249 on May 25, after peaking on April 23 at 972. And there are at least some meager signs of economic relief: Statewide, about 6,880 fewer initial unemployment claims were filed the week ending May 23, compared with 22,483 received two weeks prior, when businesses were allowed to open with half their workers in the office and retail stores given the go-ahead to do curbside pickup. But Coloradans have been mixed on whether and how to dive into reopening.

In Eagle County, officials had ordered personal protective equipment in January and tamped down an early outbreak without a surge at medical clinics. So many business there were eager to reopen early, which a state waiver allowed for on April 23. “Sixty percent of our businesses are direct tourism and hospitality. The other 40 percent are one-degree removed,” says Chris Romer, president of the Vail Valley Partnership. “It’s a very real possibility we will have businesses that don’t make it.”

Pent-up demand emerged quickly, with some Denver residents driving almost 200 miles round trip to the county for a haircut. Still, some business owners in a part of the state that tilts Democratic weren’t ready. “We were put in a spot where hairdressers are guinea pigs,” says Monalisa Aguilar, the owner of Posh! Salon & Boutique in Vail, who has ventured into her salon only to serve regulars. “I really felt it was too early.”

New cases emerged, but Eagle County officials moved quickly to trace and quarantine people.

Two hours to the east, in Denver, Hancock, the mayor, said in an interview that traffic patterns suggest more people are beginning to go back to work in a city and county that suffered the state’s highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths. But Hancock, who ordered residents to wear masks in businesses in early May, says he won’t hesitate to issue health orders that are stricter than the state’s. “We have to further educate people and do everything we can to encourage people to exercise caution,” he says. “The reality is we have another season coming later this year.”

Scientists on the governor’s modeling team echoed caution, stressing that the state has allowed business to resume only with social distancing and cleaning. “This is not a complete reopening,” says Elizabeth Carlton, an epidemiologist at the Colorado School of Public Health and a member of the modeling team. “What our models, and other models, make clear is that there is going to be transmission for the long term. It may be a long time before we can gather together in large groups.” (Gatherings of more than 10 people are still discouraged in the state, though summer day camps can open June 1.)

There is plenty of room for nine employees to move around in the Denver Bookbinding Company’s 4,500-square-foot facility. Still, some of co-owner Gail Lindley’s customers, many of them libraries, remain closed and don’t have staff to pay outstanding invoices for restored books. “We are so far behind of what sales were last year at this time,” Lindley says. “We are not going to be showing a profit this year. There is just no way.”

On the Eastern Plains, Debbie and Mark Tryboski, who furloughed 15 employees and spent $8,000 in savings to keep the 80-seat Bully’s Grub & Pub in Fleming alive, are trying to prepare their 15-year-old eatery to reopen next week. But they worry that Bully’s, known for breaded bulls’ testicles that draw diners from as far away as Nebraska, will not survive if it can operate only at a limited capacity. The eatery is unable to offer service on the sidewalk due to space restrictions.

“We are the hub of this little town,” Mark says. “When we are open, there are cars lined up two city blocks. If we don’t open, this town is going to shrivel up a little bit.”

As state lawmakers (some masked, some not) returned to Denver on Tuesday to debate how to fill a record $3 billion hole in the fiscal 2021 budget, Polis is continuing to try to balance how to slow the virus’ spread while also igniting an economic recovery. In June, he intends to decide, based on whether the virus is reemerging, if bars and overnight camps can open. An economic stabilization council Polis created in March is advocating further relief from the federal government and reviewing other policies to help lift the economy. The governor continues expansive briefings with PowerPoints illustrating the data he is using to determine if other activities can return. Amid it all, he has decried efforts to politicize the pandemic.

“It’s really unfortunate the nation seems to be at a height for ideological and partisan divides,” he said in our interview. “This shouldn’t be viewed through a political lens. It should be viewed through a health lens and an economic lens.”

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