Emergency Declarations Issued Across US Due To Coronavirus Vary Widely in Scope

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis provides updates on the state’s coronavirus response efforts on Wednesday, March 11.

Governor Jared Polis has enacted “unprecedented” emergency powers to deal with Colorado’s first pandemic in recent history, as coronavirus spreads throughout the globe.

But he has so far resisted declaring the sweeping emergency authority he could — making his targeted approach to disaster declarations this week stand in contrast to other states.

Declaring a state of emergency in Colorado can confer broad powers to the Governor. That’s if he decides to invoke them. Last week, his health and public safety officials drafted powers that include the ability to quarantine people and buildings, seize medicine from pharmacies, suspend some licensing requirements for medical professionals. There were nine draft orders in all being considered. Officials are expected to meet again next week to discuss that more.

Those are similar to the powers governors in other state’s are already claiming as they try to get a handle on the spread of coronavirus. The powers in Polis’s verbal declarations on Tuesday and Wednesday in Colorado, however, didn’t mention any of those.

Polis instead announced emergency rules on paid sick leave for certain industries, like food handling, hospitality and child care; unemployment insurance for those who test positive for coronavirus; work from home rules for state employees; allow people over 65 years old to renew drivers licenses online; and a new drive up lab in east Denver.

On Wednesday, he went a little further, requiring new rules restricting visits to facilities that cater to older populations and ordering no in-person visits to correctional facilities.

“He's getting out in front of it. I think it was wise to declare a disaster,” said Stephanie Donner, who managed the disaster response to the 2013 floods for Governor John Hickenlooper. That was the last time a statewide disaster was declared before yesterday. Donner said Polis can always implement more sweeping measures as needed.

For now, he is, at least publicly, adopting a more cooperative, less dictatorial, stance than some of his fellow chief executives. For example, at a Wednesday afternoon press conference he said he was “recommending” a 72-hour closure of schools where a student or staff member tests positive for the virus. Click through the press release his office issued a few hours later, and the words “state ordered closure criteria” appear.

But it’s not known if or when Polis will invoke additional powers. Colorado has relatively few confirmed coronavirus cases, 33 as of Thursday morning and no deaths. Compare that to Washington state with more than 250 cases and more than 30 deaths.

“It’s unprecedented in recent history,” said former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter, who signed several disaster declarations during his time in office, including for two tornadoes and for the Four Mile fire. But he said the powers Polis is assuming are beyond anything he did. His disaster declarations were mostly intended to clear the way for federal assistance.

“It looks like it’s the Governors who are dealing with this in a more serious way,” said Ritter.

A Look at Other States

Washington state, so far the hardest hit by coronavirus, has issued three emergency declarations starting on February 29th. An outbreak of coronavirus at a Seattle-area facility caused a wave of deaths. Washington’s Governor Jay Inslee ordered limits on the number of nursing home visitors in a day. The order also bars visitors or employees if they have a fever. (This is similar to what Colorado is doing. Polis said yesterday that he was particularly worried about older populations.)

On Wednesday, Washington's Governor went further, issuing a proclamation banning gatherings of more than 250 people until March 31.

In California, the emergency declaration prohibits price gouging, relaxes rules on competitive bidding, removes some medical licensing prohibitions, like allowing out of state medical professionals to work there. Colorado is also contemplating something like this.

In New York, a state of emergency issued March 7 relaxes rules around procurement and who is eligible to test people for coronavirus. It also allows emergency personnel to transport people to quarantine locations rather than hospitals.

In Utah, which only has four confirmed cases of coronavirus, the March 6 emergency declaration is limited: requiring the timely dissemination of information and outreach to the populations most vulnerable to coronavirus. But that state’s senate has moved quickly, passing legislation Wednesday that would allow them to meet remotely, rather than shutting down the session due to the virus. The Utah House will now take it up.

Read more: Why are stock markets falling and governments declaring emergencies?

Colorado has the capability to do something similar, but first legislators have to see a written declaration from Polis. By Thursday morning, more than two days after his initial verbal declaration, his office still had not released a signed order.

Update: After this article was published, Gov. Polis released written orders. Read them here.

Like Colorado, some other states started slowly in declaring emergency powers. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis added more sweeping orders to his previous emergency order as the virus has spread -- expanding his authority beyond quarantine rules to allowing medical professionals from other states and closure of state buildings as needed.

Declaring an emergency puts states in line for federal disaster aid, and opens various local funding mechanisms. In Colorado, Polis has moved $4 million from the Disaster Emergency Fund to start fighting coronavirus. Since the legislature is, at least for now, still in session, Polis can also ask lawmakers to provide money rather than raid emergency funds. That would mean the emergency funds wouldn’t need to be repaid later.

At Tuesday’s press conference, Polis said, “I've consulted extensively with public health officials, and studied the response in other nations, what's worked and what hasn't worked, successful efforts to contain coronavirus like in Taiwan and failures like in Italy.”

Though there’s little in Polis’s executive orders that would seem to prepare Colorado to avoid the failures of other nations or emulate successes - his authority has limits. Taiwan, for instance, has temperature sensors in public places that allow officials to find and isolate sick people. And Taiwan required hospitals to test and report cases before the first confirmed positive for coronavirus.

Colorado has no capability to do either of those things, and testing here has been extremely limited by the scarcity of testing kits nationwide.

Governors have a tough balance to strike, balancing responding to a crisis and also not disrupting the state unnecessarily.

“With these powers also come costs and the possibility of raising concerns among interest groups and the public,” Glen Mays, professor of health policy Colorado School of Public Health. He doesn’t fault Polis for moving relatively slowly. “That may be a factor: is just to kind of proceed with caution based on what we know.”