© 2024 Michigan State University Board of Trustees
Public Media from Michigan State University
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Unprecedented COVID-19 Pandemic Tests Governors' Mettle


The work of state governors has completely changed this month. They are leading their states through a pandemic. Bente Birkeland of Colorado Public Radio hung out with Colorado's Democratic Governor Jared Polis to see what a typical day is like for him.

BENTE BIRKELAND, BYLINE: In Governor Polis' office inside the state Capitol, there are a lot of phones - three cellphones spread out in front of him and a dedicated conference phone.

JARED POLIS: This is Jared Polis joining.

BIRKELAND: The 44-year-old governor is a tech entrepreneur, father of two and former congressman. He's detail-oriented and decisive.

POLIS: Hi, Bente. How are you?


POLIS: Good.

BIRKELAND: And when it comes to social distancing, Polis practices what he preaches. I sit far away from him, my microphone attached to a 6-foot extension rod.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Announcement - we'll get started here in just a few minutes.

BIRKELAND: Before he joins a call with the nation's governors for an update from President Donald Trump, then Vice President Mike Pence, he's also on one of his cellphones, finalizing executive orders to ban elective surgeries...

POLIS: We're adding the salon one. We'll put an end to...

BIRKELAND: ...And to close nail and hair salons.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: From what I understand, we have pretty close to 50 of the governors and some territories on, and we have a lot of - just about everybody showed up...

BIRKELAND: Polis says he prefers to get his information talking directly to the vice president or the CDC instead of from these large White House calls.

TRUMP: ...Tremendous success working together, and...

BIRKELAND: The governor says Colorado's immediate federal needs are more protective equipment for health care workers and more tests. And with so much attention on New York, California and Washington state in the scramble for resources, he doesn't want Colorado to be ignored.

POLIS: Hi. This is Jared Polis. Can you hear me? Hi. This is Jared Polis. Can you hear me?

TRUMP: You're looking well, Phil...

POLIS: That didn't work.

BIRKELAND: But Polis never gets a chance to ask the president a question.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: You have raised your hand.

BIRKELAND: Next he walks down the hall for an update with top state officials.

Is this a pretty typical day?

POLIS: Yeah. I start at the emergency operations center for a couple hours this morning. I'm on-site in different areas and, of course, here, a lot of the work is being done over telephones, videoconferencing.

MIKE WILLIS: Thank you. Good afternoon, Governor. Mike Willis here. Midday report - the mobile test site in Pueblo is ongoing...

BIRKELAND: Polis and his staff discuss everything from medical equipment to how to deal with surging interest in an untested possible coronavirus treatment.

POLIS: The president's been touting chloroquine as therapy. I've heard from, like, six doctors that, as a result of that, every - all their patients are demanding prescriptions.

BIRKELAND: Yesterday, Polis made the difficult decision to issue the order for Coloradans to stay indoors, a move some feel is too extreme. But he said the data showed Colorado needed to do more.

POLIS: I don't have the comfort level that the existing extreme measures that we've taken to date are enough.

BIRKELAND: During crises, governors are often called on to be consolers in chief. Yet right now, Polis is playing a different role. He's become sort of the constant bearer of bad news.

POLIS: The decisions are very painful. 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.

BIRKELAND: But even if it means battered industries and thousands out of work, Polis says he has to be able to act to navigate this pandemic and to save lives. For NPR News, I'm Bente Birkeland in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.
Journalism at this station is made possible by donors who value local reporting. Donate today to keep stories like this one coming. It is thanks to your generosity that we can keep this content free and accessible for everyone. Thanks!