Gov. Polis Calls For ‘Swift, Powerful Action’ At Local Level As Colorado Coronavirus Cases Rise

Face Mask Required Sign Denver Business
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
A door sign at the Target store on Denver’s 16th Street Mall tells customers they must wear a face mask in the store to protect against the spread of coronavirus, Tuesday, July 21, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis warned that counties would have to take a stricter approach to public health as coronavirus cases rise across the Front Range, mountains and western Colorado.

“Now we are at a point that areas in our state need swift, powerful action at the local level,” Polis said at a Tuesday press conference.

Polis has delegated some of the decision-making power about the pandemic to Colorado’s 64 counties, granting more than 40 variances that allow counties to loosen restrictions on worship, restaurants and more. But the state has warned that 15 counties’ variances will be canceled if cases continue to rise.

Asked about some local officials’ defiant stances against his authority, Polis said that his orders were well-founded.

“Weld County believes incorrectly that we don’t have the ability to do anything,” he said.

Polis has also faced complaints from public health leaders in a broad swath of counties who say the state’s coronavirus response has been confusing and at times inefficient.

Polis’ explanation was simple.

“Stress. I think the steps that people are taking are because of stress. I think that stress is an understatement,” he said. “So, of course, people are going to lash out at everybody. They’re going to lash out at the federal government, they’re going to lash out at their own elected leaders, they’re going to lash at us."

He called on public health officials to “channel that frustration into positive action for change.”

Statewide, new cases have been reported in greater numbers lately, with the growth in cases exceeding its previous springtime peak. Cases have grown most intensely along the Front Range, stretching from Colorado Springs up into Weld County, and also in several counties in Western and mountainous Colorado.

At the same time, Polis said there were limits to what the state could do. He said that local governments needed to tap their own abilities. And he turned, as always, to personal responsibility.

"No government policy can force anybody not to be stupid, but I’m calling on Coloradans not to be stupid. We’re at a point where about one in 500 Coloradans are contagious with coronavirus,” he said, responding to a question about a largely maskless, apparently unauthorized event in Weld County.

The governor urged people to live like they did “in May,” rather than the more active summer living of July. 

Polis named one short-term objective: better testing. It’s taking some labs weeks to return results to Coloradans, with longer delays at public facilities. Polis said he is “expecting turnaround time to decrease substantially,” to about three days at most, in the near future.

The governor also said he wanted to see more testing — for example, he said, the state could help a testing facility in Pueblo expand from its current three-times-a-week schedule. He also wants to help the Pepsi Center site in Denver speed up its turnaround times.

In a two-day series this week, CPR News documented that the state has consistently ranked at or near the bottom of states in the number of tests administered per 100,000 residents and in the rate of people tested.

But Polis defended the state’s relatively low number of tests, saying that test positivity rates remain below the benchmark 5 percent, meaning that relatively few people who get a test actually have COVID-19. In hot spots, previously including Colorado, that positivity rate can exceed 20 percent.

There has not yet been a sharp increase in the number of reported COVID-19 deaths in Colorado. At least so far, the resurgence hasn’t been as fatal as the early outbreak. That may be because the new cases are skewing younger, while the early outbreak ravaged elder-care facilities. Deaths tend to follow new cases by several weeks.