Everyone I heard from fully expected Colorado Governor Jared Polis to issue a severe state-wide “shelter in place” order at his Sunday press conference.
George Brauchler seemed to think he would. Brauchler, recall, is a district attorney in the state and a prominent Republican who, in an alternate universe, might have been in the governor’s seat during all this. Shortly before Polis’s media conference, Brauchler pleaded, “Please do not issue any sweeping shelter-in-place order without first consulting with the agencies across the state who will be called upon to enforce such an order.”
On Friday, Colorado Public Radio’s Ben Markus asked, “Why Isn’t Colorado Sheltering In Place Like Other States?” During Sunday’s conference, several journalists seemed shocked that Polis did not issue such an order. Meanwhile, Colorado’s journalists have worried how to keep themselves in the “essential services” category and therefore exempt from any statewide crackdown. (Obviously I agree journalists need the freedom to keep working during this critical time.)
Rather than impose an extreme statewide crackdown, Polis instead did something remarkable, something that politicians often have trouble doing. He chose, at least to a substantial degree, to trust individuals to rise to the challenge, do the right thing, and do their part to keep Coloradans safe. Polis chose to lead with moral authority rather than the point of a government gun. And now it is up to us. It is up to you, me, and every other person in Colorado to act responsibly during the coronacrisis.
Polis said that the ultimate enforcer for physical distancing guidelines is not the state of Colorado, it is the grim reaper. To the degree that people act recklessly, they put their parents, grandparents, health-compromised friends and family members, and themselves at risk, Polis explained. The governor also said that he wants his measures to be practical for people to follow for a number of weeks.
The thrust of Polis’s remarks on Sunday is that businesses need to do better to achieve physical distancing in the workplace. The way Polis put it is that so-called non-essential businesses should reduce their “in-person” workforces by 50 percent. He suggested that businesses go for telework to the extent feasible, and when people absolutely must come in that businesses do things like stagger shifts and ensure adequate physical separation among employees.
Make no mistake: Polis still has imposed some dramatic restrictions on people’s movements. Bars and restaurants are shut down except for takeout. Hair, nail, massage, and tattoo businesses are shut down. Social gatherings of over ten people are out. And he means the new workforce rules to be binding, not just recommendations. We should also remember that Polis still may issue more-severe emergency measures in the future. But, so far, Polis has not followed such states as California in issuing a shelter-in-place order, so in the scope of things he is applying a relatively light touch.
Polis is taking a bit of a gamble here. He must know that, if the death toll reaches anything like worst-case numbers, many people will criticize him for not taking an even more severe approach, and critics may not think too carefully about whether that harsher crackdown would have worked better. So those of us who think he did the right thing by holding back should be especially motivated to make his bet a winner.
Polis is taking flak from both sides, both from those who think he’s close to an irresponsible anarchist for not imposing stricter controls and those who think he has strapped on the jack boots too tightly. I think both extremes are overreacting.
As I’ve said, I do think some restrictions on gatherings are reasonable here to prevent the spread of infectious disease. As best as I can tell, the dominant view among health experts is that COVID-19, this dreadful new coronavirus, is highly contagious, quite a lot more deadly that the flu, and easily spread by people before they show any symptoms. Models of the potential exponential spread and damage of the disease are frankly terrifying. They’re not Zombie Apocalypse terrifying or “wipe out a quarter of the population” terrifying, but they are “maybe kill hundreds of thousands or millions of Americans” terrifying.
So I for one intend to stay isolated with my family to the greatest degree possible. I’d go even further than Polis and recommend that people not even go to grocery stores where delivery is available. If you don’t have to be around other people, don’t be. The life you save could be your loved one’s. Or yours. Or mine.
The other main aspect of Polis’s approach that I love is his emphasis on getting the hell out of this mess as quickly as we can. We cannot make distancing and economic shutdowns the “new normal,” he said. Right now we need to lock down fairly tightly to buy ourselves time to find the longer-term measures that will enable us to get back to near-normal.
The main thing that Polis emphasized, and I completely agree, is the need for mass testing. If doctors can more-carefully track the disease and isolate the sick even before they show symptoms, then most people can basically get back to normal. In this way, Polis said, we should strive to look more like South Korea or Taiwan than Italy. I think that’s exactly right.
Polis has issued the call. Now it is up to you to answer.