During an April 22 update about COVID-19, Governor Jared Polis vacillated between upbeat assessments about the state's readiness to move ahead after Colorado's stay-at-home order ends on April 26 and defensiveness regarding criticism that he's shrugged off the need for additional testing and contact tracing in his race to get the state's economy moving again.
"We have a choice — you have a choice," Polis said. "We could, of course, go backwards, or we could go forward. And I hope we go forward."
Polis's remarks suggest that he's fully cognizant of political pundits who have lumped Colorado in with Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee, the other three states that have announced lockdown lifts in the coming days — and whose plans have been widely derided in many quarters for allegedly going too far too soon.
In an attempt to portray Colorado in a more positive light, he stressed that "we would never classify this as any kind of grand reopening. I've said probably every single time that we're not going back to the way it was in January and February and take all this for granted. If we did, we'd have an exponential curve, and we'd have tens of thousands of fatalities. Colorado is a special place, but we're not special in that sense. It would happen here."
The address began on a somber note: Polis revealed mid-day stats from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment showing 506 casualties from the novel coronavirus to date. "Colorado has passed the 500-death mark," he confirmed. "We knew we would. There are many more ahead. Our hearts go out to the families and loved ones of those who've lost their lives."
He then stressed that the transition from "Stay at Home" to what he is referring to as "Safer at Home" isn't "in any way going back to normal. It's about how we can have a sustainable way of life for May, and very likely with modifications beyond."
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For him, safer at home means that Coloradans will continue to limit social interactions to the greatest extent possible; that seniors and others with chronic illnesses will maintain the same type of extreme social distancing that's been in place to date in April; that people will wear masks whenever they leave home, including outside while walking, running or cycling in places where others also gather; and that they won't congregate in groups of ten or larger.
The decision to keep schools in the state closed through the rest of the year was made in part because instituting new social-distancing practices and other safety measures with just a few weeks before the term's end would be logistically impossible, Polis said (he didn't mention a comment he made during a conference call with superintendents in which he floated the prospect that remote learning might remain in place until January 2021). Then he touched on elements of the timeline after the stay-at-home order's expiration: On April 27, retail businesses can offer curbside delivery while preparing to reopen more fully on May 1, albeit under the sort of standards currently imposed on critical outlets such as grocery stores. And on May 4, offices and the like can begin operating with 50 percent of their workforce on site — though he encouraged those that can lower that percentage with ongoing telecommuting to do so. Also mentioned were staggered shifts to enhance social distancing.
"Safer-at-home is not a free-for-all," Polis maintained. "It's not an opportunity to get the virus and spread the virus to many other people, and it's not an excuse to turn this into a vacation. This is a pandemic, not a vacation. It's not for having parties or large get-togethers. We need to forgo some of those things for May. We need to resist that temptation for a month."
Specific rules and regulations will be announced on April 26, Polis added.
As for testing, Polis said the subject "seems to be the buzz of the national and local media." But he insisted that he's never downplayed its importance, and has frequently noted that it's among the four main areas of attack when it comes to the virus, along with social distancing, wearing masks and protecting the most vulnerable populations. However, it's "not a panacea. It doesn't solve this. We can't just test and trace our way out of this in any model I've seen that's credible," he said. Instead, Colorado needs to use an all-of-the-above strategy in which each of these tactics is employed and improved.
He also offered a fresh rationale for ending the stay-at-home order in just four days: The "most shocking" aspect of the COVID-19 modeling he's seen is that "maintaining the stay-at-home order for an additional two or four weeks delays the peak, but it doesn't have anything more than a negligible impact on the severity of the peak. It's basically the same."
So rather than inflicting "very severe economic pain on people" for another extended stretch, Polis continued, he's phasing in a reopening while working to ramp up in areas such as testing. He touted the arrival of 150,000 tests by the end of the week and 150,000 swabs by mid-May in the wake of 20,000 of the latter that have already arrived. Antibody tests in the hundreds of thousands are also becoming available, he pledged.
His understanding of testing's importance is unwavering, he said: "Just because I don't talk about it every day doesn't mean it's not the singular focus of a whole team of people working on it."
As evidence, Polis offered the following anecdote: Colorado is now testing asymptomatic people at senior centers and nursing homes — he suggested the state may be leading the nation in this regard — and recently found between three and five positive cases among staff members who seemed fine otherwise. "That could be twenty lives we saved of people in their seventies and eighties at those facilities," he calculated.
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Finally, Polis answered several questions posed by the general public. To someone who took him to task for giving salons the opportunity to reopen while restricting restaurants from offering in-person service until some unknown date in the future, he said the decision was based on math. Salons are a one-on-one service, while restaurants and bars may have forty or fifty people in close proximity, thereby ratcheting up the risk factor in a significant way.
The next comment came from a woman who said mask-wearing among customers at her neighborhood grocery store had fallen from around 75 percent to 25 percent in a week because of the stay-at-home order's impending conclusion. "This will not work," Polis stressed. "If anything, this should increase our mask-wearing culture. ... The number of people who wear masks needs to go up."
A third observation came from the head of a local law firm, who said he considered allowing non-critical businesses to bring up to 50 percent of their employees back into the workplace on May 4 was irresponsible and he wasn't going to participate. To that, Polis said, "Thank you. That's wonderful." These guidelines aren't "a mandate to go back, and I applaud any employers who are able to make [telecommuting] work for a few weeks longer."
One more thing: In the middle of his talk, Polis felt a cough coming on and quickly covered his face with his elbow. "If you have to cough, that's the proper way to do it," he said.