Governor Jared Polis
has hosted dozens upon dozens of press conferences focusing on the state's fight against COVID-19
since the start of the pandemic last year. But the one he held today, August 18, was one of the most remarkable, if only because it found him actively addressing the possibility of public unrest and perhaps even violence over renewed masking mandates — or the lack thereof — in schools across the state.
"We have been following the discussions around mask-wearing requirements in schools, and they are important discussions to have," Polis said. "I want to make sure that we send as a message that even if you're disappointed with your own district or county's decision, there is actually something more important than what a district's mask-wearing policy is, and that is civility and respect."
He added, "If we differ with our leaders in different areas, we have a voice to do that. But what isn't okay is threats or violence or getting in the way of education."
Before Polis got into a discussion of potential violence, he revealed that new positive cases of COVID-19 for today topped out at 2,023, the most since May — and the current hospitalization total of 606 is also one of the highest in months. Moreover, he admitted that experts are not yet seeing a downward trend.
During her time at the podium, Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state's lead epidemiologist, delivered what turned out to be a mixed message. Colorado's stats are much better than those in many parts of the country — particularly areas in the Southeast, she noted. But she also conceded that the rise of infections and hospitalizations in Florida and elsewhere may have been spurred in part by children returning to schools — something that's happening here now. "Given the experience we had last fall, and the experiences of other states, we're not immune to seeing a rapid increase," she stressed.
Back at the mic, Polis defended his call for mandatory vaccinations among those working with high-risk populations, such as employees at long-term care facilities, and cheered the federal decision to encourage a third dose of the vaccine for individuals who are immunocompromised; he noted that those who qualify won't have to provide paperwork to prove that they have a qualifying condition and promised that the state will intervene if vaccine providers try to impose different policies. He also teased the distribution of booster shots to those who've previously been immunized starting on September 20; they'll first be available to those who were first in line for inoculations back in January, including health-care professionals.
Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Dean Williams and Michelle Barnes, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Services, were both on hand to announce that they'll require employees to be vaccinated. Williams acknowledged that some job holders may quit rather than roll up their sleeves, potentially creating staffing shortages, but argued, "The risk of not taking this step potentially exposes us to another onslaught of the variant in the fall and the winter. ... I'd rather deal with this now than wait three months, when we're in even worse shape."
Returning to the issue of masks, Polis said that his own children would be wearing face coverings in school under the present circumstances, even if he lived in an area where masking up wasn't required. While the governor didn't openly castigate school districts with different "risk thresholds," he again said that the state will step in if hospital capacity is endangered, or if schools have to shut down for in-person instruction as a result of ignoring the recommendations of state and federal experts. He also stressed that districts threatening not to report COVID-19 data to the state would be breaking the law — though he didn't say what action might be taken should such violations come to light.
He encouraged people to talk with friends, family and loved ones who have been reluctant to get vaccinated. "The worst that can happen is that they don't change their decision," he said, adding, "The anxiety around getting it is much worse than the actual vaccine itself."
Yet Polis also called out anyone suggesting that "school board members and county health officials want to kill kids by not requiring masks," just as he emphasized that districts imposing mandates aren't "necessarily trying to restrict freedoms or want mask-wearing for the sake of mask-wearing. I think every district that has implemented mask-wearing requirements can't wait until that requirement is no longer in effect."
Especially with civility and respect in such short supply.