Littwin: The question for Polis and for all Coloradans – How much risk is too much risk?

Gov. Jared Polis shows off his new face mask on April 3, 2020. He is encouraging Coloradans to wear masks when out going grocery shopping or on other essential business. (Screenshot from @jaredpolis)
Gov. Jared Polis shows off his new face mask on April 3, 2020. He is encouraging Coloradans to wear masks when out going grocery shopping or on other essential business. (Screenshot from @jaredpolis)

Since I have been boldly predicting that Jared Polis would find it impossible to begin to reopen the Colorado economy this month, I must admit I was wrong. But I’ve been wrong before (see: Trump, Donald, 2016). It comes with the job.

I assumed, as most did, that Colorado would need sufficient testing capability and a far greater buildup of contact tracers before the state could move to Phase 2. I assumed it because that’s what we were all told. And yet, we have neither. As for testing, we’re still not close, although Polis said that 150,000 new tests have cleared customs and are on the way. The contact-tracing corps is still in the early building stage. So, again, I admit I was wrong.

What worries me far more is whether Polis is wrong.

Governors are often wrong, obviously, but Polis simply can’t be wrong this time. The stakes are far too high.

I mean, don’t you find it just a little concerning that Polis is out in front even of Donald Trump on reopening? I know it worries me that Dr. Tony Fauci says he’s concerned about states opening prematurely, saying that to “jump the gun” risks a huge backfire.

It also worries me that when I asked Sen. Michael Bennet — who was on a press call promoting a Senate bill that would train significantly more people to do testing and contact tracing — about states opening without that sufficiency, he told me his main concern “is not just that we reopen our economy, but that we reopen it in a way that is sustainable so that we don’t end up in an unvirtuous cycle of openings and closings because the pandemic comes back.”

Bennet said in talking to Polis that governors are rightfully worried about balancing health and economy and that he believes Polis is doing his best “on the fly.” He said he didn’t want to prejudge him because his understanding is that Polis is still working on what the “contours” of reopening would look like.

Let’s just say that was not exactly a ringing endorsement of a political ally. As for the contours, Polis gave another news conference Wednesday in which he tried to do a better job explaining that reopening is not a “grand reopening.” And the aspirational May 15 date of restaurants reopening seems to have gone the way of the immediate need for sufficient testing.

Polis admitted that his first news conference on Monday about slowly reopening the economy may not have met the communications test.  In his second news conference Wednesday, he tried to better, but in explaining the reopening, he used a bunny-hill-to-green-hill skiing metaphor, with a graphic. Seriously.

Polis’s decision to reopen puts him out there alongside some of the crazies, like Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. This bothers him. Yes, Polis is slow-walking the reopening whereas, say, Kemp not only wants to hit the ground running, he thinks he’s Usain Bolt. Even Trump says he thinks Kemp is off base. And we won’t even go near the mayor of Las Vegas, whether she wants us to or not.

Look, Polis thoroughly understands the issues, and certainly better than I do. But he was frustrated at the latest news conference by all the questions about testing — saying testing alone won’t solve the problem. Of course, no one has ever said testing alone would solve the problem. What we’re being told is that sufficient testing is necessary.

He explained again that moving forward requires four pillars — social distancing, wearing masks when outside, constant hand-washing, and testing with contact-tracing — and that success will be a matter of personal responsibility. But of the four pillars, testing is the one over which we ordinary people have no control. So, yes, we keep asking.

What I do know about Polis is that he’s a strongly pro-business governor who has been, as he says, champing at the bit to reopen the economy. Certainly people need to get back to work as soon as possible, but only with an acceptable level of risk. Everyone is asking the same question. Assuming there’s a spike in deaths when economies reopen, how many deaths can we tolerate? Polis is asking seniors and those with chronic conditions to treat May exactly as they have April — to stay home unless absolutely necessary.

I’m lucky enough to be able to work from home. Many can’t. I wish the president and Congress had done what some European countries have done, which is to pay companies to keep employees on the rolls. But that’s too much like socialism, or something. So here we are. Once again, the poor and the working class are getting hit the hardest. Minorities are more likely to get infected. Nothing seems to change.

What makes the stakes particularly high — other than, of course, the risk of more people dying and the risk of a resurgence that could overwhelm hospitals — is that if there’s a need for a do-over, a new shutdown, that would be a huge psychological blow to Coloradans. Polis says he’s prepared to pull back if the data shows it is necessary. But he must understand that reopening, whether grand or otherwise, sounds like reopening.

With stay-at-home rules, Polis said we were hitting something like 80 percent social distancing. That was a huge success. He says if we can keep it at 60 to 65 percent, hospitals won’t be overwhelmed — so long as we’re wearing masks and social distancing and employers and retailers comply with the rules. I don’t go out myself — I’ve got two strikes against me in the COVID-19 game — but I think I know human nature well enough to understand that social distancing, with guidelines in place of rules, is extremely difficult to maintain.

Do you think two-thirds of Coloradans will consistently wear masks? I’d love to think so, but I’d say if this is the bet, it’s a long shot.

How exactly does anyone even know what 60 percent compliance looks like? There is no way for an individual to judge, except that everyone should play by the rules, which many will not. Across the country, polls show that people are more concerned about the dangers of reopening too quickly rather than too late. We just heard from CDC Director Robert Redfield that the virus, assuming it goes away, could well return when flu season arrives, which he said would be a devastating combination. Trump assured the nation that wouldn’t happen. He has no idea, of course.

Polis, on the other hand, understands the risks. And in his view, Colorado can reopen if slowly. In his view, it will be OK to get a haircut Monday or a tattoo or a pedicure. It will be OK for businesses, with strict rules, to have as many as 50 percent of their employees on the site.

He knows some people won’t wear masks or socially distance, but no one knows how many. Will people go outside if they see people not physically distancing or wearing masks? There are so many questions.

Certainly, the economy, which is in free fall, with unemployment at Great Depression-era levels, will have to reopen eventually. But why are so many other governors with much the same information, and with the exact same concerns, not yet ready to make the same move Polis is making?

Polis, to his credit, has done a fine job handling the crisis to this point. But are we better prepared than so many other states? Probably not. The difference seems to be that Polis, the one who makes the call here, is just more willing to roll the dice.

16 COMMENTS

  1. Polis has that Libertarian streak. He was reluctant to lean on parents who are anti-vaccines. I hope those tendencies don’t get a bunch of us killed. I’ll be wearing a mask with greater urgency starting Monday

  2. I wonder why Bennet used the word unvirtuous. Is he quoting Bernard Mandeville or Adam Smith or somebody? Maybe it’s a libertarian thing.

  3. When I heard that they are aiming for “60 percent social distancing” as of Monday, I had to laugh, because the people who have been ignoring all of Polis’s requests (aka: the protesting crowd) will be the exact same ones who will ignore his new requests and call him names moving forward. The rest of us compliant folks, will be doing our part. So I don’t see anything changing at all. This is one heck of an experiment, though. We are all the guinea pigs now. (Thanks for your great writing and insights, as always, by the way!)

  4. I cannot overstate how much I oppose this decision. What else can be said? Golf is not worth dying for? Thanks for undoing all of our sacrifices.

  5. Given the Governor’s analogy of moving from bunny slope to green trails, I am curious — how many more people die skiing green trails than on bunny slopes?

    The first report of a Colorado death was on March 13. In 41 days, deaths climbed to over 500 — and today I read there may well be an additional 25% (130) added, with deaths without a positive COVID-19 test. So the policy is being developed without knowledge of how many have died, how many were symptomatic but did not test, how many infected without symptoms, and whether those who have recovered have total, partial, or no immunity.

    I know policy is often developed without full knowledge — but making policy with next to NO knowledge at all seems like a pathway to unforeseeable disaster.

  6. Up until this week, I was pleased with the governor’s policies regarding the virus. Following this past weekend, he’s begun to sound like the president. Who did he speak to over the weekend that made him change his steady course? The issue with testing and tracing is especially jaw dropping. The Democrat governor of our state is ignoring the guidelines of health experts? Incredible.I’m afraid I will have to monitor him more closely in the future. I’m not sure I got what I thought I was getting when I voted for him.

    • I would say (guess) he would be hearing from the State Treasurer of funds not coming in and debt letters piling up, not being paid. That was the way it was for me and my family in the 1950s, when my pay was low, and my expenses where high. I learned then to put some aside, because in politics, income and expenses would fluctuate. Military did not start getting reasonable salary until Eisenhower was elected. Reason I worked one or two, part time jobs all my military years. However, Governor may be listening to others. I have no ideas about that.

  7. Polis is tacking a perilous course. He’s depending on the intelligence of local officials and individual citizens. With an eye forward to how local and state governments will be able to respond to critical needs in the coming months and year(s).
    His problem is that Colorado is not “one size fits all”. The risks are higher in some areas than in others, depending on the nature of work force, local economies and population demographics. Depending on whether you live in the “high Rockies”, the Western or Eastern slope or prairies.
    Folks on the Eastern Plains are “self distanced” as ranchers go into town for supplies and the locals keep gathering (apart) for coffee at the town cafe. Here in Loveland, we (hopefully) are masked as we walk our dogs or bike/walk the trails. Our “incarcerated seniors” stay in touch with virtual happy hours and emails.

    Folks will do what folks will do. No matter the governor’s “orders”.

  8. Your concerns are valid. Polis is not being measured or careful. He is too focused on reopening, and not nearly focused enough on slowing the spread of disease. Given the number of people who have disregarded the stay at home order and basic, practical social distancing guidelines, we can count on a significant increase in the spread as the guidelines are relaxed.

    We’d be better off with mandatory guidelines about face coverings, social gatherings restricted to members of the same household (10 is a silly and arbitrary number), and no intention of opening retail establishments, entertainment venues, or personal services until testing and contact tracing are widespread.

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