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In Unprecedented Times, Governors Have Unprecedented Power

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis listens in to a call with governors around the country, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on March 19.
Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis listens in to a call with governors around the country, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence on March 19.

To contain the spread of the coronavirus in Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis has issued orders that would have seemed inconceivable just a few weeks ago. He's closed Colorado's schools, bars, the ski industry and on Thursday orderd most people to stay home.

It's an exercise of executive authority that has no precedent in recent history, and it has put the 44-year-old Democrat's leadership style in the spotlight.

Governors have been on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic and they've taken vastly different approaches to the threat, partly because of each state's unique circumstances. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, both Democrats, quickly ordered residents of their states to stay home. Republican governor Ron DeSantis of Florida says he wants to allow cities and counties to make the best decisions for themselves but is facing increasing pressure to do the same in Florida where, as of this writing, there are nearly 2,500 cases.

Nationwide the outbreak has spawned a twin disaster-in-the-making: An economic meltdown that, in Colorado, could reverberate through the rest of Gov. Polis' time in office.

Non-stop days

In that office, one of the first things you notice is all of the phones. Three cell phones spread out in front of him and a dedicated conference phone.

"This is Jared Polis joining." Polis as he dialed in along with nearly all of the nation's governors to a conference call update with President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.

Three of his senior staff joined him at a large circular table. A small dispenser of hand sanitizer sat nearby.

"Mostly on these, they talk for a while and there's a chance for us to ask questions in the end," he noted.

While waiting for the White House call to get going, Polis made tweaks to his next round of executive orders that would come later in the day. Talking with a department head on one of his cell phones, he worked to finalize the ban on elective surgeries and the order to close nail and hair salons, spas and tattoo and massage parlors.

Instead of these large White House calls, the governor said prefers to get on the phone directly with the vice president or the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to get answers, something he said he does almost daily.

His focus with the federal government right now is to address the immediate need for more protective equipment for health care workers and more coronavirus tests. Polis doesn't want Colorado to be ignored in the scramble for resources, in favor of places like New York or Washington state.

Then he's off to his next meeting down the hall with his chief of staff for a midday update with top state officials.

Every day now the governor's days are filled back-to-back meetings related to the outbreak. Polis has tried to practice what he preaches to the public about social distancing. "A lot of the work is being done over telephones, over video conferencing."

Polis and his staff, who mostly worked remotely, methodically ran through actions he planned to take, exchanged updates on testing capacity, hospital preparedness and discussed possible emergency medical equipment and how to deal with surging interest in an untested possible coronavirus treatment.

Polis updated officials about the White House call, where at one point, the president talked about using the antimalarial drug chloroquine as therapy for the virus. It has not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for that use, but the president's optimism has provoked a spike in public interest.

"I've heard from like six doctors today that as a result of that all their patients are demanding prescriptions," Polis said. "So we should probably figure out how to direct that towards those most in need with the limited supply that we would have."

The bearer of bad news

The pandemic has been all-consuming for the governor and a lot of Colorado residents — his constituents. The unprecedented mix of medical, economic and social problems impacts virtually every facet of everyday life, and the governor is at the center of it all.

"So here's the million-dollar question," asked one of the 500 Colorado faith leaders on yet another conference call. "Do you have any insights for us on how long we should be planning and preparing for not being able to gather in person?"

"This is likely to be weeks and months and indeed likely months," the governor warned. "Until there is a vaccine or an adequate cure that reduces the morbidity rates."

So far, Polis' handling of the outbreak has generally gotten a positive response but some conservatives said they are keeping a watchful eye on the situation.

"Government could do just as much, if not more, damage to our economy than this virus could ever do," said Sage Naumann, a spokesman for Colorado Senate Republicans.

The business community has been pushing for flexibility rather than restrictions on mobility.

"Businesses really want to have a voice in creating the solutions that we all need both to flatten the curve and to maintain some type of business continuity," said Mike Kopp, the President of Colorado Concern, an influential coalition of Colorado CEOs. "We want to keep our employees employed to as great as extent as possible, and we want to provide the goods and services to as great an extent as possible."

Governors are often called on to be "Consolers In Chief" during a crisis. But Polis plays a different role right now. He's become sort of the "constant bearer of bad news," taking on the responsibility of telling people hard truths and urging them to take difficult steps, from telling people not to be "stupid" about large gatherings, to warning that the Grim Reaper is the ultimate enforcer of social distancing.

However, Polis acknowledged the situation had taken a huge toll on Colorado and said it hasn't been easy to close industries and put tens of thousands of people out of work.

"The decisions are very painful," he said. "It's painful for any Colorado governor to consider the magnitude of something like closing down the downhill ski industry and the ski lifts, which is so iconic for our state."

But in the end, Polis said, as governor, he has to be able to act.

Copyright 2020 CPR News

Bente Birkeland has covered Colorado politics and government since spring of 2006. She loves the variety and challenge of the state capitol beat and talking to people from all walks of life. Bente's work has aired on NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered, American PublicMedia'sMarketplace, and she was a contributor for WNYC's The Next Big Thing. She has won numerous local and national awards, including best beat reporting from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. Bente grew up in Minnesota and England, and loves skiing, hiking, and is an aspiring cello player. She lives in Lakewood with her husband.
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