Jared Polis

Colorado’s one-man coronavirus czar

On March 5, Gov. Jared Polis marked — virtually, of course — the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus pandemic in Colorado. We mark it to grieve the nearly 6,000 Coloradans who have died thus far from COVID-19, along with the more than 500,000 deaths nationwide. And still we struggle, and struggle mightily, to take in the enormity of the tragedy and its many consequences.

And despite what you may have heard in certain corners, and, yes, from certain governors, the Apocalypse — and has this pandemic been anything less than that? — is still very much upon us, still quite dangerous, still, despite the promise of the near-miraculous vaccines, certain to claim many tens of thousands of American lives before the virus runs its course.

It’s fitting that Polis leads us here, because Polis, for better and sometimes for worse, has not simply been the governor through this annus horribilis, but also Colorado’s one-man coronavirus czar.

I’ve had my issues with him. He was slow, I thought, to understand the need for mandates, particularly in mask wearing, which he said wouldn’t work, although he was very early among recommending mask wearing. He was hesitant, of course, too hesitant I’d say, to issue the stay-at-home orders. He was behind Denver and the metro area in many of his decisions. And there was the one not to vaccinate prisoners according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, which was almost certainly politically driven. His decision to reject Denver’s requests to vaccinate the homeless is short sighted and, in my view, fairly unforgivable.

But in judging Polis’ performance — and as we reach the uncelebrated one-year anniversary, judge we must — it’s difficult because the power that Polis has assumed is basically unprecedented. And because there was no rule book, no way to please every constituency, no way to get this completely right because who knows, even today, what decisions will prove to have been wrong or right, I tend to give him some slack.

I mean, what grade would you give him? According to the polls, his approval ratings, in the mid-50s, have remained stable. I don’t know if that’s the best way to judge, however.

We know that the threat dial has been, well, confusing. We know Weld County wants to maybe secede (again). We also know that Colorado has been more successful in preventing deaths than most states. We know our pandemic economy lags, although part of that is certainly due to the importance of tourism. Of course, every time he reacts to the data and imposes restrictions, we hear a lot about … freedom. We know the state is doing pretty well, in comparison to other states, in vaccinations. No one has quite figured out how to deal with public schools, although it’s clear to nearly everyone that they must be re-opened by fall.

Life-and-death decisions are rarely left up to governors, unless you’re talking about death-row decisions. We elect presidents to handle such matters, not governors. But because a certain former president basically left the governors on their own to handle the crisis, there has been no choice.

And because the state Legislature has met so infrequently since the pandemic began, there has been no choice, which didn’t stop then-House Minority Leader Patrick Neville from, back in the day, comparing Polis’ stay-at-home order to the Gestapo. 

Last Friday, as the Legislature met, more than a third of Republican legislators were mask-free, leading state Sen. Julie Gonzales, a Democrat, to say, “With the clearest of opportunities to come together and do right, we have colleagues … who have chosen to prop up conspiracy theories and cast doubt on life-saving recommendations.”

I have to laugh when certain Republicans claim that Polis’ response marks him as a power-hungry politician with little regard for the Legislature, for the law, for the Constitution. I don’t know anyone, even your typically ambitious politician — and Polis certainly qualifies there — who would want that kind of responsibility. When every decision is certain to displease a wide swath of Coloradans. When so many decisions have real life-and-death consequences. When people lose their jobs because of restrictions. When he reacts, too quickly or too slowly, to the threat of evictions. When there are no real victories possible. When you ask, as Polis did recently, “Who would think losing 6,000 people could ever be a win instead of 8,000? It’s just horrific every day.”

That quote came from Jesse Paul’s deep dive into Polis’ year with the coronavirus (“The behind-the-scenes story of being Gov. Jared Polis during Colorado’s coronavirus crisis,” The Colorado Sun). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. One of my favorite nuggets from the piece came when governors understood that they had to find their own supplies.

“One time, I called a college classmate of mine who is a doctor in Philadelphia to check out a warehouse in [New] Jersey that allegedly had some masks. He went there and, no surprise, they weren’t the masks that we thought, so we didn’t buy them,” Polis said. “It literally came to governors having to send a buddy in Jersey to check out a warehouse.”

Yeah, let’s cut him a little slack. 

You can compare him to other governors, of course, and that’s probably the best measure. I can remember when we all thought that Andrew Cuomo was the gold standard and tuned in daily to his COVID updates. Let’s just say the price of gold has gone up considerably since. Polis may have been behind on getting the numbers for nursing homes, but now we learn that Cuomo apparently fudged the numbers. Add the sexual harassment charges, and I don’t see how Cuomo won’t have to resign.

Meanwhile, we must give Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer points for having to face down an apparent kidnapping plot. Yes, seriously, for failing to open up businesses quickly enough.

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp was among the worst offenders among governors who basically ignored their responsibilities in order to please Donald Trump. We saw how that worked out for him.

And then there’s Gov. Greg Abbott, who has decided that Texas, where the virus is running higher than in most states, was done with restrictions. “We’re 100 percent open,” Abbott said. Not everyone was pleased. Beto O’Rourke called Abbott’s decision a “death warrant.” This comes just after the devastating snowstorm that hit Texas and robbed millions of power and drinking water for days. And in explaining his move, Abbott blamed the spread of virus in Texas on undocumented immigrants. Yes, he did. 

The grand re-re-reopening of the American economy is underway. And, once again, it could all be premature, as we recall back in June. Or, to quote Dr. Anthony Fauci, the moves made by a series of governors — even as tens of thousands die of the coronavirus every day, even as worrisome variants and mutations come into play, even as vaccines promise to change the course of the virus if we’d just hold on for a little while longer — are “inexplicable.”

He meant, of course, from a public health standpoint. From a keeping-right-with-Trump-and-his-base standpoint, it’s everything you could expect. 

Joe Biden, meanwhile, is promising that there will be enough vaccine for every American adult by the end of May. What will that mean for Colorado? Here’s Polis from a news conference on Tuesday: “I’m confident that summer we’ll be very close to normal based on these vaccine predictions that we have today.”

Well, maybe. Will enough people take the vaccine? Do we know when herd immunity might be achieved? Do we think Dr. Fauci will recommend we stop wearing masks at that point? It sounds a little optimistic to me. I’m certainly not confident. But I would settle for hopeful.  

Mike Littwin’s column was produced for The Colorado Sun, a reader-supported news organization committed to covering the people, places and policies of Colorado. Learn more at coloradosun.com.