Some of Colorado’s top-ranking Republican lawmakers want to fire the health agency in their home county, saying that Tri-County Health Department ignored elected officials when it announced a new shelter-in-place order for Douglas County.
Tri-County Health on Wednesday issued a “stay-at-home” order effective Thursday for Douglas, Arapahoe and Adams counties, alongside other Denver suburbs. Lawmakers representing the area soon decried it as overreach -- the first time that COVID-19 restrictions have sparked public political debate among state lawmakers.
“I think it’s wholly inappropriate for an unelected body of bureaucrats to make this decision on their own, ignore the input of our elected officials here in Douglas County, and furthermore actually write policy that could imprison and fine people,” said House Minority Leader Patrick Neville.
The controversy played out in the hours before Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order late on Wednesday afternoon. Polis' decision overshadows the local action, but lawmakers' debates about public health orders are sure to continue.
“The clues were: we have a rapidly increasing number of detected cases. We have increasing numbers of hospitalized cases. We have increasing deaths. And we know that particular number of recognized cases is a gross underestimate,” said Dr. John Douglas, Jr., executive director of Tri-County.
Tri-County's decision drew quick criticism from the conservative lawmakers who represent Douglas County, including Neville and Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert. In a letter to local leaders, they complained about the “heavy-handed application of governmental power.”
The letter urged Douglas County commissioners to end their contract with Tri-County Health and move to a new health agency. Their criticism focused on the fact that a majority of county commissioners objected to the local order, but the health agency still included Douglas County.
“It became clear to me and the delegation that two of our three Douglas commissioners had opposed including Douglas County in this order,” Holbert said. “The head-scratching began. How is it that an unelected bureaucrat at Tri-County Health can overrule them?”
Tri-County leader Douglas issued the order after the Tri-County Board of Health voted for him to do so. He was hired by the board, which is appointed by elected officials in each county. Colorado state law puts public health authority in the hands of appointed public health leaders.
“We are the ones that statutorily have the authority to make sure that we maintain public health, even in extreme situations, by issuing orders,” Douglas said.
Minority Leader Neville acknowledged that Tri-County had the authority, but he criticized the new policy.
“No, I don’t think it’s going to save lives. I really don’t,” he said.
Neville argued that shelter-in-place orders have actually exposed people by driving panic purchases, pointing to long lines at Denver liquor stores this week. He described earlier state orders on restaurant closures as “more measured.” And he questioned why the government would threaten to jail people for violating the order, even as it tries to reduce jail populations amid the outbreak.
“I think what we need to rely on more is actual trust in the citizens out there,” Neville said. People who violate the Tri-County order could face a misdemeanor punishable by up to $5,000 in fines and 18 months imprisonment.
Reps. Kim Ransom, Kevin Van Winkle and Mark Baisley also signed the letter, as did Sen. Jim Smallwood, who is recovering from COVID-19.
A seventh Republican, Sen. Jack Tate, similarly criticized the order in Arapahoe County. Health agencies “should only be able to make these orders for a duration long enough to allow our elected officials to convene and make longer-term decisions,” he said in a written statement, describing the local order as “too severe.”
Douglas, of Tri-County, said that his board had reached out to elected officials.
“We know we need political support to make this happen. If we do something that everybody hates and they say ‘That’s ridiculous, we’re not going to support it,’ it’s going to be taken much less seriously by the citizens,” he said.
He stressed that public health agencies are led by health experts who need a degree of independence from politicians.
“This was probably the hardest public health decision I’ve ever made in my life,” he said, noting that his career began in the early ‘80s. “I’ve never seen anything blow up like this with as much potential for damages. We absolutely did not take this decision lightly. We knew that it was going to be at the very least confusing and off-putting to people.”
Douglas County’s commissioners didn’t immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. Neville said the next step would be up to them.
“I think it’s in the hands of the Douglas County commissioners,” Neville said. “ … If there's legislation that needs to be changed, I would certainly like to do that myself, but obviously I would need Democrat support to do that.”
Conservatives nationally have pushed back on pandemic-fighting restrictions too, including U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, who said that doctors’ advice was trampling on civil liberties.
But when Polis' statewide order emerged Wednesday, the initial reaction from Republican lawmakers was muted. Holbert had said earlier that he would accept an order from the governor, and he repeated that message again when it arrived.
"I'm more comfortable with this coming from the governor. Our elected officials are elected for many reasons, but one specifically is to be accountable for these kinds of decisions by the voters who elect them," he said.
"It is troubling that this is now statewide. With rural communities, there's different scenarios in different counties. But the governor was elected to that position, he has this authority. I'm going to study the order and listen to constituents as we move forward."
This article was updated after Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order.