If the fight against COVID-19 is a football game, the State of Colorado just moved the goal posts.
During a November 17 press conference, Governor Jared Polis revealed that because of spiking data, ten to fifteen Colorado counties are likely to qualify for the Red level on the state's COVID-19 dial system — a status that previously called for adopting a stay-at-home order. However, officials at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have created a new level, Purple, that allows such municipalities to stave off lockdowns until their hospital capacity is completely overwhelmed.
Polis didn't name the counties that will be moving to the Red level. But Mayor Michael Hancock, who joined Senate President Leroy Garcia and Speaker-designate Alec Garnett as the governor's guests, said he expects the Mile High City to be among those moving under the Red umbrella. Once that shift becomes official, a number of new restrictions will be put in place, including a temporary halt of on-premises dining inside bars and restaurants (outside is okay, as long as the party is from the same household), an 8 p.m. last call, and limiting of capacity at gyms to 10 percent.
Polis also announced that he's calling a special session of the Colorado General Assembly to pass legislation intended to disperse approximately $200 million earmarked for emergency use in the most recent budget, and possibly more, to small businesses, individuals at risk of losing their housing, and more. Dates for the session have not yet been announced.
Polis established a somber tone early on by noting that he'd attended a funeral over the weekend for a victim of COVID-19. He then revealed that cases of the novel coronavirus went from around 3,500 to 5,100 to more than 6,000 over a recent three-day period, and that over 1,300 patients in Colorado are currently hospitalized with the disease — a number higher than at any point during the pandemic. And while most hospitals have not yet exceeded their capacity, Parkview Medical Center in Pueblo hit 100 percent over the weekend, requiring some patients to be transferred to other facilities — a situation caused by what Polis accurately characterized as "exponential growth" by the virus.
Additional measures are necessary to change this equation, the governor admitted, but he also acknowledged that he wants to avoid the economic devastation that a new statewide stay-at-home order would cause. Hence the creation of the new Purple level, which he explained essentially "bifurcates" the Red level. In the past, three metrics were used to determine if counties were in the red: cases per 100,000 residents, the positivity rate and hospitals over capacity. Now, only the first two will be used to determine Red level status — and counties won't be immediately shut down once they reach this territory. Only counties whose hospitals have been overwhelmed will move to the Purple level.
One likely reason for this change: While plenty of counties are at the Red level when it comes to cases and the positivity rate, none have yet exceeded hospital capacity. That buys leaders time to avoid lockdowns, which are unpopular, an economic drag and politically explosive.
For his part, Hancock used some of his spotlight time to rip the federal government for not coming up with a new stimulus package to help state and local governments, as well as individuals — remarks echoed by Polis, Garcia and Garnett. "If we're going to reverse the trend, we must move now with additional measures," Hancock added, so that "the blunt-force response of another stay-at-home order can be avoided."
During the special session, Polis, Garcia and Garnett stressed that legislators will focus on three "buckets": assisting small businesses, helping people facing housing insecurity, and making sure that child-care facilities are able to remain open so that parents can keep working and earning a paycheck. Polis admitted that the $200 million or so at Colorado lawmakers' disposal won't go nearly as far as a new federal program might, but it should be able to provide a fiscal bridge until much-touted vaccines become available to the general public, probably in the first quarter of 2021.
One potential measure mentioned by Polis would be a bill allowing restaurants to use the 2.9 percent sales tax they collect for rent and payments to employees over the winter months.
During a question-and-answer session, Polis defended the addition of the Purple level by conceding that what's been done to date hasn't worked. But he also argued in favor of keeping schools open despite more than 112 active outbreaks at K-12 institutions and multiple districts switching to remote learning because of staff shortages and other challenges. He suggested that educators focus on maintaining in-person instruction through fifth grade, consider a hybrid model for middle school and move to remote learning, if necessary, for those in high school — and also offered hope that new federal dollars will help pay for safety improvements that might make such steps possible.
Polis praised the courage of legislators who've agreed to meet in person during a special session to assist Coloradans in need, since they're putting their own health at risk. Indeed, Garnett essentially acknowledged that many Republican representatives and senators didn't wear masks during the most recent legislative wrangling — though he expressed hope that they'll do so this time around.
Consider that to be symbolic of the challenges to come.