When some of Colorado’s Democratic lawmakers found out about Gov. Jared Polis’s decision not to extend the state’s coronavirus stay-at-home order and instead allow certain types of businesses to soon begin reopening, they were frustrated.
“The biggest concern was we didn’t know what it meant,” Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg said. “I think the governor’s office would be the first to say the governor struck a confusing tone on Monday.”
Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat, said the governor was “probably desperate” for positive news, as everyone is, when he announced the shift to “safer at home” at a news conference Monday. The announcement came a day after a protest of the governor’s stay-at-home order at the state Capitol, which may have contributed to the confusion, Fenberg said.
“He’s human. He’s going to have days where he strikes the wrong tone. He’s going to have days where he has it right. I think Monday was the wrong tone.”
Still, Fenberg said he doesn’t believe Polis changed policies because of the demonstrators: “I don’t think the protests had any role to play in this.”
Colorado’s lawmakers held multiple calls with the governor or representatives from his office last week to get some clarity on the new “safer-at-home” phase that begins Monday, and to get answers to questions from their constituents.
While Republican leaders have been loudly critical of Polis’ stay-at-home policies, the plans for a new phase began to worry even some Democrats, who questioned whether the state was opening back up too quickly.
Others were concerned about local jurisdictions lifting their restrictions. Many felt that they didn’t have enough details on the new plan. And they continued to be worried about testing and its availability.
But as more information is released, Democrats who previously opposed the new guidelines say they’re more optimistic. They just hope that if they don’t work, it won’t be too late to go back.
“When the governor first announced it, I was not really excited,” said Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. “I’m really wanting to make sure that we don’t slide back.”
Not saying “woo-hoo!”
In a statement, Polis spokesman Conor Cahill acknowledged there are Democrats who likely have criticisms of the plan, but stressed it’s “uniquely the burden and duty of our governor to lead in a crisis,”
“The governor and his team have been working around the clock for the last 55 days spending long hours day and night with the best scientific minds and health experts to craft a strategy that puts the health and safety of Coloradans first while working feverishly to secure adequate supplies in a dysfunctional supply chain environment, putting extra protections in place for the most vulnerable, and increasing testing,” Cahill said. “‘Safer at home’ is a Colorado solution grounded in science, not politics.”
Todd said she’s probably a little more cautious, particularly because of the closure of the Walmart Supercenter in Aurora over conditions that led to three COVID-19 deaths and even because of the protest at the Capitol, during which not everyone was adhering to social-distancing guidelines or wearing masks.
But as she’s talked to business owners and the governor’s office about it more, she doesn’t think everyone will be running out at one time to reopen. Polis has said this is not a “free-for-all” and some businesses are still hesitant to open. Todd is still concerned, however, about businesses not having enough protective equipment or about employees being pressured to go into work while their kids have to remain at home because schools remain closed.
“I’m not jumping up and down and saying, ‘Woo-hoo!’ ” Todd said. “I am cautiously optimistic that people will be smart.”
Sen. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, however, applauded the governor’s transparency, and said while she understands the concerns — they’re inevitable with uncertainty — there has to be some movement. She called the governor’s approach a guarded one.
“I believe it’s the right move at the right time and it’s measured,” Fields said.
On Monday afternoon, Rep. Brianna Titone, D-Arvada, and Sen. Julie Gonzales, D-Denver, were among the leaders who took to Facebook to ask people what questions they had about the new phase.
“There were a lot of really interesting and poignant questions that were raised that I didn’t have any answer to because the governor’s safer-at-home order wasn’t really complete,” Titone said. “It’s still not.”
The governor first held a news conference Monday to introduce “safer at home” with basic information about how it would work, saying a full plan would come later in the week. At a follow-up news conference Wednesday, Polis provided additional details about his proposal and said it would be detailed in an executive order would to be issued Sunday. But on Friday, he said the order would not come until Monday.
Titone said she doesn’t envy the governor’s position and believes he’s still handling Colorado’s response better than the federal response to the crisis.
“I think there’s a lot of pressure to open the state and rightfully so. Economic pressures are very strong and there’s a lot of people that want to see things go back to normal. Once money starts flowing around, it really makes a big difference in the system. But at what cost?”
“Thoughtful and prudent”
Gonzales said she wishes the governor would have communicated the plans more proactively with lawmakers so they had more answers for constituents. But she said the data seems to show encouraging signs.
“Would I have liked to have seen the statewide order stay in place longer? Sure. But I’m not in direct, everyday, hour-to-hour communication with the public health experts,” she said.
Fenberg attributes at least part of the confusion about the new phase to people thinking the goal of the stay-at-home order was to stop the virus or lessen its severity, but in reality, he said, the purpose is to delay the severity so health care systems can prepare for a surge.
“I think, inherently, these types of orders are going to be confusing for Americans who are used to living in a free society,” Fenberg said. “People understand a pandemic and staying at home and how to live (that way). Nobody really knows how to live in the gray area, and I think that makes this all more confusing to navigate.”
Some of the Democratic lawmakers’ hesitations were assuaged with the governor’s announcement that local communities could have stricter guidelines than the state, or, as some rural and mountain areas have advocated, apply to ease restrictions further. For Gonzales, that was especially important.
“I am really glad that Denver took the lead in saying, ‘Hey, this is how we are going to be thoughtful and prudent’ (by extending the city’s stay-at-home order to May 8) and I’m really glad that so many other jurisdictions have worked in coordination, right alongside Denver,” she said.
House Speaker KC Becker, a Boulder Democrat, said Coloradans will have to recognize that these restrictions will be the new normal for a long time.
“There’s going to be a lot of in between,” she said.