COVID-19 Update: Polis Threatens Crackdown on Rogue Counties

Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a press availability on April 24.
Colorado Governor Jared Polis during a press availability on April 24.
During an April 24 press session that he described as the final scheduled availability prior to the expiration of Colorado's April 26 stay-at-home order, Governor Jared Polis promised to use all the powers of his office to prevent counties from going rogue regarding public-health standards in the weeks and months to come.

The issue arose after the governor received reports about a local radio appearance by Weld County Commissioner Mike Freeman, who chastised Polis for allegedly picking "winners and losers" when it comes to those enterprises allowed to reopen after the stay-at-home order ends; most retail outlets will be able to unlock their doors, but bars and clubs must remain closed for now, and restaurants can't yet offer in-person service. "What we're saying is, we're going to treat everybody equally and fairly in Weld County," Freeman reportedly said.

Among Polis's responses: "If you're unilaterally saying, 'We're simply not going to follow any public-health guidance,' that is endangering lives, and as governor, I'm going to act to prevent that" using methods that include financial pressure and actions by law enforcement.

During introductory remarks, Polis revealed new Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment stats about the novel coronavirus: 12,251 positive or presumptive cases and 669 deaths. Both of those figures are significantly higher than those that preceded them, but Polis stressed that they're "not a spike." Instead, the numbers represent a retroactive adjustment related to fatalities that listed COVID-19 as a cause on death certificates over the past four or five weeks, as well as cases from earlier in the month reported by private labs — information that had not previously been rolled into the CDPHE's totals.

He then reiterated familiar themes from recent talks about a gradual transition from stay-at-home to "Safer at Home," which will begin with curbside service by non-critical businesses on April 27. Stores, shops and the like can reopen to the public on May 1.

In the meantime, Polis emphasized that social distancing and mask-wearing must be maintained and even increased after the stay-at-home order is lifted, in order to keep friends, families and loved ones safe. He also teased the creation of a new advisory board that will offer suggestions about how the state can maintain business levels over the long term, lauded testing at three senior centers confirming twenty positive cases that could have proven devastating to the vulnerable residents there, and touted the licensing of 264 health-care workers through new procedures put in place by his administration.

The Weld County matter came up during a subsequent question-and-answer period. Polis said the information about COVID-19 on the county's website was adequate, if not as thorough as that offered at the state level, and he added that officials there hadn't filed paperwork to relax certain restrictions, as have Eagle and Mesa counties. But even if such outreach is made, he continued, "they don't have any unilateral ability to jeopardize the health of their citizens" by, for instance, allowing businesses to ignore social distancing, mask usage or other mandates.

As for what Polis can do in the face of blatant defiance, the governor maintained, "If any county is not treating this like the emergency it is, they risk losing emergency funds." Businesses might also be stripped of licenses to operate, and law enforcement could play a part.

Polis also addressed fears about a second wave of infections that might arrive in the fall or winter, during what is traditionally the flu season. Stamping out the virus is likely impossible even if an effective vaccine or effective cure is found, he said; the only option until then is to modify our behavior so that "everyone has a fighting chance to survive. There will still be fatalities, but the fatality rate would be much higher" without such measures.

"We don't want to ever exceed our capacity," he concluded. "That's why we want to continue to limit the spread to save lives for the long haul."
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts