‘Are The Broncos Getting Special Treatment?’ Polis Says No As He Plans To Welcome Fans Back To Mile High

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Jared Polis Press Conference 200520
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis updates reporters on the state’s progress in stemming the spread of coronavirus, at the Governor’s Mansion Wednesday, May 20, 2020.

Gov. Jared Polis denied Wednesday he gave the Denver Broncos special treatment by allowing them to have 5,700 fans in the stands for an upcoming game while other venues face much tighter limits.

Polis told Colorado Matters the rules he negotiated with the Broncos will set the stage for other venues to open to bigger crowds with COVID-19 safeguards. The team will have 5,700 fans, in separated pods of 175 people, in the stands for their Sept. 27 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Current state rules limit outdoor gatherings to a total of 175 people, prompting complaints from venue operators who say the rules are prohibitive. In Jefferson County, public health officials have twice gone to court against the owners of Bandimere Speedway for hosting events that drew excessive crowds. The latest case came after the raceway’s owners hosted a “Stop the COVID Chaos” rally to protest the state rules.

Polis said keeping football fans in pods of 175 will allow each group to have separate restrooms, entries and exits. A key to avoid superspreader events, he said, is to limit group size so if someone has the virus, cases can be tracked.

“You simply can't do it if you have 3,000 or 4,000 people altogether, you don't know who is exposed to whom. You can do it in smaller units and then if people were exposed, they can enter a quarantine to help control the virus,” he said.

The Broncos, Polis said, have a “strong operational plan … a lot of learning from that that will apply to others across the state,’’ as other sports and arts venues try to open.

In a wide-ranging interview, Polis also announced a $32 million grant pool for schools — especially in areas where the economy has been hardest-hit by the virus — to create new programs.

The grants will range up to $4 million each and could be used for things like extending the school day for some students or putting together a program that would allow students to earn a high school diploma and an associate’s degree simultaneously.

Interview Highlights

On maintaining privacy with a new phone app that tracks COVID:

The app will notify Coloradans if they’ve been in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. It’s optional and anonymous.

“You already trust iPhone and Android with every bit of personal information you have. This is actually, we looked at the architecture and it doesn’t know who you are or where you are. It’s strictly anonymous … 

It's been a very similar system, very effective in South Korea. They had it from day one. They had it built because they had it built for previous contagions that they faced. So they launched it and I mean, my goodness they've had just a teeny fraction of the caseload and death and misery and economic damage that we've had.”

On having a vaccine “hopefully’’ by the end of the year:

“The federal government did something very smart. They contracted early for the production of 100 million doses of several of these vaccines that are being tested. Now, if none of those work that'll be wasted, but if one or two of them work we could have as many as 100 million doses by January, which would be wonderful. That makes enough dosage to effectively alter the trajectory of the virus, depending on the efficacy of the vaccine, hopefully in the 80-to-90 percent range. Of course, I do agree with the FDA commissioner who said they will release it if it's more than 50 percent effective, as well as of course not causing any bad health effects.”

On whether he’d take a vaccine that was just over 50 percent effective:

“Sure. I get my flu vaccine … that's about 50 percent ... Absolutely that degree of protection is important for yourself to reduce your risk of getting it but it's also important if we can do it across broader society, if we get enough people that are vaccinated it will crush the virus and allow us to return to normal.”

On his prediction that new federal stimulus money is months away:

“I think the general parameters they've agreed on. I mean, I think there's going to be some element of unemployment insurance, some element of funding for testing and vaccine distribution, some elements of support (for) schools safely returning … I still think it's likely but I think it'll either be what we call the lame-duck session, meaning after the election in December or could be the new session of Congress in January.”

On a ballot initiative to decrease the state income tax:

The tax rate would drop from 4.6 percent to 4.55 percent. A person earning $50,000 a year would save about $40 in taxes. Polis said if the income tax is cut the budget hole should be filled by eliminating other tax breaks. 

“We don't want to do it in a way that costs any revenue to the state … It leaves the work ahead of ‘How do we pay for it?’ I mean, how do we reduce dollar-for-dollar the loopholes and giveaways to big corporations and the well-connected to make sure that if we're giving ourselves a tax cut, that it's not costing money for our schools or our roads or any of our other important public prayer.”

Full Interview Transcript

Ryan Warner: You're with Colorado Matters from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner. Colorado is six months into the pandemic and a few weeks into a school year, unlike any other. We've also seen a summer of racial unrest, joblessness, all while a big election looms. It's against that backdrop. Gov. Jared Polis joins us once again for our regular conversation. Hello, governor.

Gov. Jared Polis: And you forgot to mention the early September snow, which is very rare in our state.

RW: Indeed and quite the plummet of temperatures. Governor, schools and colleges are operating in very different ways across the state but they're all managing uncertainty, it's safe to say. I understand you're announcing a new program this morning that will help. It's called RISE. Briefly, what is it? How is it going to help?

JP: Sure. Well, I've been visiting schools across the state that are back. I'd been to Cherry Creek and Patriot Elementary in Fort Carson, Center in the San Luis Valley. I'll be in the Eastern Plains. It's great to see kids going back to school in a safe way. And I've been impressed with what I've seen so far. What we're doing with the RISE Education Fund is we're using some of the CARES Act money. The Federal money the state got, about $32 million to get it out to the school districts, the charter schools, the neighborhood schools, the community colleges that need it the most. There was a big formulaic piece of funding, Ryan, in the CARES act. Thank goodness, we were able to send it out to community colleges and school districts but it went to everybody equally and that's important because they needed to meet their budgets.

But with this $32 million, we're really looking for high impact investments in the schools that have really been hardest hit generally by the economic and health impacts of COVID, meaning areas of higher unemployment. It hit the service industry hard. Districts in the schools can apply by October 17th and they can get grants of anywhere from a quarter million up to $4 million to really fund transformative changes in what they do. Meaning it could be a dual and concurrent enrollment program, where along with a high school degree, you get a Associate's Degree in a trade that gives you the ability to earn a living. It could be an early literacy programs in an elementary school, extending the learning day by an hour for kids who need it the most, so all these ideas. The ideas are there and the state wants to partner by providing some of the funding out of this Federal Relief Bill. So we're really excited about this RISE Program. It stands for Response, Innovation and Student Equity Education Fund. And we look forward to really getting that out and making a difference for kids.

RW: You are hearing that here first on CPR news. $32 million and you cited a few examples there of how it might support districts in places where people are really struggling. Early literacy, for example, do I hear in that a concern that the achievement gaps that existed before the pandemic, you think might be exacerbated because of the pandemic?

JP: You do. You look at, of course, both the health impact of the pandemic. Who is hospitalized, who has lost their lives. It skews towards those Coloradans who work in essential jobs, often hourly jobs and had no choice but to be exposed and are not able to telecommute. In an addition, that's where the economic impact is, too. Of course, people in all income brackets have a higher unemployment rate than before. But the biggest change, Ryan, is the unemployment we're seeing in the hourly worker economy. Just with the hit to tourism, less people. Well, we're doing better than many other states. We have tourism, certainly not the normal level that we have, hospitality industry, et cetera.

RW: Speaking of, what do you think right now of the negotiations in Washington around a stimulus package?

JP: Well, it's key that they get it done and it's frustrating to see when things are caught up between the negotiators. I mean, I think there's a number of elements they're debating but I think the general parameters they've agreed on. I mean, I think there's going to be some element of unemployment insurance, some element of funding for testing and vaccine distribution, some elements to support schools safely returning. They just have to finish negotiating the exact amounts and get it done. I was more hopeful before, I think frankly at this point, Ryan, I still think it's likely but I think it'll either be what we call the lame duck session. Meaning after the election in December or it could be the new Session of Congress in January. But I'm still optimistic that the Federal Government will come through in the time of need across the country.

RW: Let's talk about a new system for contact tracing, using smartphones, Apple and Android involved. In layman's terms, when there's a gathering, let's say for coffee or a business meeting, people's phones will exchange little bits of information. And my understanding is that if one of those people later tests positive for COVID an anonymous notification goes out to the folks that they've been in contact with. In announcing this, you stressed that the system doesn't track location or share identities but tech companies have promised privacy before. Speak to folks trying to decide whether it's worth the risk to track COVID this way.

JP: Well look, I mean, you already trust your iPhone or your Android with every bit of personal information you have. And this is actually ... We've looked at the architecture. It doesn't know who you are or where you are, it's strictly anonymous. It's simply, we'll exchange a bit, where if a phone that you were near, that person contracts COVID, you would then get an alert system. This is key in really amplifying our ability to fight and contain this virus in Coloradans being able to enjoy themselves more. It's been very ... Similar system, very effective in South Korea. They had it from day one. They had it built for previous contagions that they faced.

JP: So they launched it and I mean, my goodness, they've had just a teeny fraction of the caseload and death and misery and economic damage that we've had. So it took a while to get it right because we wanted to make sure the architecture was sound, was anonymous and provided no ability to either sell or market or even have information about who you are or where you are. And they were able to deliver on that architecture. And so, we're excited that it will be part of the regular iPhone update. You can turn it on, it's opt in, it'll be an Android app. And the more people use it, the more we can get back to normal sooner.

RW: Jefferson County is suing the Bandimere Speedway over last weeks, Stop the COVID Chaos Rally. Most attendees were maskless, people didn't keep their distance and it violated the county's events size limit. Other groups and business owners have protested some of the rules around crowd size, social distancing and masks. There's talk on social media of a possible demonstration from a different group next week. Meanwhile, you announced that the Broncos will be allowed to have fans in the stands, 5,700 people, at their September 27th game against Tampa. And I wonder if that is sending a conflicting message. Big crowds can't gather at a raceway, but they're welcome at a football stadium in the middle of a city.

JP: Well, it's all about how it's done. The Broncos put together a strong operational plan where … they're having pods of 175 people each, consistent with the outdoor guidance, separate restrooms, separate entry facilities. The key thing in avoiding super spreader events is really twofold, Ryan. One, it's to have the number at a level where you can do contact tracing and notification, if there's a case. That's why the pods, that's why the 175. You simply can't do it if you had 3,000 or 4,000 people altogether, you don't know who is exposed to who. You can do it in smaller units and then if people were exposed, they can enter a quarantine to help control the virus.

And then the second is just the social distancing methodology and the implementation of that. Making sure that this is a reasonably safe environment. And if it wasn't, the Bronco's certainly don't want to put their fans at risk and they took that very seriously. So it's about how to do these things. It's not about how to move backwards or avoid things. It's about how do we figure out in this pandemic, how we go about our lives and have fulfilling lives in a reasonably safe way without allowing a virus to destroy our economy or our lives.

RW: I've got to say, listening to your press conference in which you announced this Broncos arrangement, I mean, you really sounded like an advertisement for the Broncos. And I don't want to take anything away from Broncos Country by any means but are the Broncos getting special treatment here, being able to negotiate directly with your administration?

JP: No. What the Broncos are doing is they're really leading the way. They have the organizational wherewithal, the values, the ability to execute. So they are really showing the way that will allow the state to have more of these larger scale events. I know there's also working with a motorway on what an event might look like. The Rockies, when they're ready to go, when Major League Baseball's ready to go, large concert venues. There's been many outdoor concerts over summer but how do we, in a safe way, return to some of those larger venues with his pod concept and the social distancing. So the Broncos to their credit said, "You know what? We're willing to take some of that risk. We're willing to figure out how to have fans back. We want our Orange Nation fans to be there." And so it's really been groundbreaking to help figure out how we can do that in a reasonably safe way with them and a lot of learning from that, that will apply to others across the state.

RW: Okay. So you think that, that's applicable elsewhere. Governor, stay on the line, we're going to take a break and resume this conversation. I'd like to talk a bit more about the economy, especially heading into winter. Some questions about climate change, obviously with the recent wildfires in mind. This is Colorado Matters from CPR News, be right back.

RW: You're back with Colorado Matters from CPR News, I'm Ryan Warner. Let's rejoin my live conversation this morning with Gov. Jared Polis. He is back for our regular conversation. Governor, I do want to get your outlook on Colorado's economy over the next few months. You talked about the uncertainty of a stimulus package out of Washington, exactly when that would come and what it would look like. Meanwhile, restaurants and other businesses already operating at reduced capacity are now looking at the colder months and whether they can make it through without patios open every day. The flexibility that warm weather provides is fading. Are you braced for a further winter slump?

JP: Well, winters on our minds with the weather the last day or two but we generally do have a very, very good weather September and October. So we're certainly looking forward to two months where the outdoor dining works and we're able to do that in a safe way. As you get into November and especially December, it gets harder. And we're working closely with restaurants in the hospitality industry across the state, to figure out what a safe experience looks like. That one wouldn't lead to a step back. You look at some states like Arizona and others, where they had to move back, they went to 25 percent capacity. California closed in restaurant dining. We want to move forward, right? How do we do more, not backwards. That's why we have the best data, the best science guiding the decisions. And we're working with restaurants to figure out what that experience looks like for winter. But we're also grateful that Colorado, today accepted, has a wonderful September and October weather for dining out.

RW: Let me go to that fundamental question, whether you think there's going to be a heavier economic blow come winter.

JP: Well look, this is a global recession caused by the pandemic. America is really taking the brunt of it as one of the worst health responses of any nation, most deaths per capita. And Colorado is no exception to that but we're doing better than that. We have a lower unemployment rate, we're seeing less damage to our economy. We successfully pulled off a good summer tourism season, much better than we thought in the mountain areas. We have telecommuting, which is much safer working for the folks who can do that.

JP: And those who have to go in are taking the precautions like mask wearing, hand washing, gloves, depending on what they do. So because of those precautions, our economy's doing a bit better, lower unemployment, less hit. And we have to keep it. I mean look, the economy it flows out of where you are in the pandemic. And the states that have been hardest hit by the pandemic have their economy hardest hit. And so, we want to avoid that in Colorado and to do that, we need to continue to wear masks, avoid large gatherings and just be thoughtful and careful and smart in then weeks and months ahead.

RW: What are you hearing about the potential for a vaccine? And I wonder how you would determine whether to take it. And I ask this, of course, with the news of the AstraZeneca trials being put on hold.

JP: Well, I think that the likely timeframe for when a vaccine can be proven safe and effective, is hopefully by the end of the year. There's a number of them being tested. The reason there's so much uncertainty and people speculate, is nobody knows. Are five of the 80 being tested going to work? Are three of them going to work? Or none of them going to work? 30 of them going to work? And obviously, the more effective we have a vaccine, the better. And then the second piece is how quickly can you gear up production? The Federal Government did something very smart.

They contracted early for the production of a hundred million doses of several of these vaccines that are being tested. Now, if none of those work, that'll be wasted. But if one or two of them work, we could have as many as a hundred million doses by January, which would be wonderful. That's enough dosage to effectively alter the trajectory of the virus, depending on the efficacy of the vaccine. Hopefully in the 80, 90 percent range. Of course, I do agree with the FDA Commissioner, who said they will release it if it's more than 50 percent effective, as well as of course, not causing any bad health effects.

RW: Would you take that vaccine, if it were 52 percent?

JP: Sure. I get my flu vaccine every year, that's about 50 percent. Actually, I shouldn't say I get it every year. I got it last year, I'm definitely getting it this year. I encourage everybody to get the flu vaccine. Like most people, I, of course, missed years with my flu vaccine. But yes, absolutely. That degree of protection is important for yourself to reduce your risk of getting it. But it's also important if we can do it across broader society. If we get enough people that are vaccinated, it will crush the virus and allow us to return to normal.

RW: You mentioned the Federal Government there. Speaking of, President Trump right now, positioning himself as the law and order candidate in the presidential race. In accepting his party's nomination last month, he mentioned police misconduct but he also warned against, quoting here, "Mob rule." And he has called out mayors in some cities for failing to control protests. Are you concerned, Gov. Polis, that the continuing confrontations could strengthen Mr. Trump?

JP: Well, I mean, I think he's presiding over this chaos. I mean, we didn't have riots and destruction under President Obama or President Bush. I mean, this is Trump's America. The lawlessness, the chaos, the destruction of property, even people have been shot at some of these. And I think the President needs to look himself in the mirror and say, "Hey ..." Not that he's going to, Ryan. But he should. An effective leader should look himself in the mirror and say, "Hey, is there anything that I'm saying or doing that is contributing to this national chaos and lawlessness?" And I think most Americans believe there is, which is why I think Joe Biden, the law and order candidate, is going to win this November.

RW: Have you been enough of a leader on this issue in Colorado, in easing tensions, in addressing tensions?

JP: Well, I try every day. I think certainly I've done my best not to … things. That's the number one directive, is do no harm. Second, is to listen. And I've had groups in and I try to understand and listen. And what are people frustrated about? What can we do? Colorado passed a Landmark Police Reform Bill, which was the right thing to do. I think it not only spoke to the moment it spoke to longstanding frustration. It's in communities of color with treatment by police, we banned chokeholds. Every officer … the video cam that has to be on. We established civil liability for law enforcement, really leading the way bipartisan bill, almost unanimous. Democrats and Republicans came together, I was proud to sign it. So look, we're taking action. We're listening and we're not stoking the flames of hate.

RW: Governor, you made action on climate change a hallmark of your administration but you are getting some criticism from what would seem like your home team. Two environmental groups have sued you for failing to meet a July 1 deadline to set new rules aimed at cutting greenhouse gas emissions. There are complaints that your recent appointment to the air quality commission may have ties to the oil and gas industry. I'd like you to talk to people who see Colorado's recent wildfires, for instance, and say, "The governor's got to push faster here."

JP: Yeah. And now the wildfires, which we currently have five major ones in the state. Pine Gulch, largest in our history, 139,000 acres. Cameron Peak now over a 100,000 acres, Ryan, only 4 percent contained. That's the one that generally in the Metro area you've been smelling and seeing visually the ash and pollution in the air, absolutely the longer, hotter, drier summer seasons are resulting in increased fire risk. The other issue, it's affecting our water. I was in the San Luis Valley recently talking about some of the watershed issues and hearing from farmers about what Ag even looks like in this new era. So that's why we want to lead the way in taking bold action on climate. Our goal of a hundred percent renewable energy by 2040. Well on our way, a lot of our largest utilities, Xcel, already locked in 80 percent by 2030, working with Tri-State, Colorado Springs, utility accelerated the retirement of their Drake Coal Plant.

So we're moving and of course it's the job of these advocacy organizations to push you to move even faster, no problem there. And that's just what they do. And they wouldn't be doing their job if they weren't pushing as fast as they can. But we're moving forward, we need cleaner air. We need to do our part on climate and Colorado wants to be positioned to benefit from the good green jobs of the future. You look at the Pueblo Steel Plant, EVRAZ Steel Plant, largest behind the meter solar facility in the entire country, going in there. And EVRAZ is investing hundreds of millions of dollars, actually, in a brand new plant. Thousands of high-quality steel jobs that are going to stay in Pueblo, in part, because of this investment in renewable energy,

RW: Our Transportation Reporter, Nathaniel Minor, has noted that many more people are driving than earlier in the pandemic. And more folks are avoiding transit, certain workers who either aren't going in or are driving instead. Just briefly in a few moments, do you think that COVID-19 is having an effect that way on some of Colorado's climate goals?

JP: I think that what we learn from the pandemic will provide new tools in combating climate change. What I mean by that is, I don't know if you're telecommuting today, Ryan, but I am. And in fact, about 70 percent of the state government is. And we found, like many private sector companies, that folks can do their job effectively from home in many cases. Now we know that there's value in being together and folks are, of course, going to come back when the pandemic's over. But I think this new normal for many state employees, of course, telecommuting a couple of days a week, no problem if you can meet the productivity goals. Same with the private sector. Company after company that I hear from says, "You know what? We learned that we can have 50 percent telecommuting. We can reduce our office space overhead, save money on leases, increase employee morale and retention." And so, I'm confident that, that will emerge out of this, this devastation as a positive improvement for humanity and it'll reduce traffic and improve air quality in Colorado.

RW: Well, the question of its impact on traffic, I suppose, is itself questionable given the patterns we're seeing right now. This Fall's ballot is a doozy governor, 11 statewide measures. We know you support the nicotine tax that includes vaping products for the first time. You signed the national popular vote measure, which would require that Colorado's Electoral College votes go to the candidate who wins the national popular vote. I wonder if we could do a yes, no, round on a few of these and maybe get into some detail on a couple.

JP: We probably can, Ryan, but I think we'll have to do that a little closer to the election. Because we're just evaluating these and looking at these and obviously, the ones that I had something to do with, meaning I signed them, I was involved as you indicated, I'm supportive of. But yeah, there' a number of them, I think, we're just going to begin going through them and I'm sure you and I'll do some election special at some point and we'll be happy to talk about them.

RW: Okay, wait. Do I hear you shutting me down on this right now? In other words, you don't want to answer yes or no questions on the ballots at this point?

JP: Well, if you want ... I mean again, like most Coloradans, I'm going to look at the ballot and then of course I'll have opinions on many of them and I'll be happy to share them. But it'll be, as I said, "It'll be closer to the election. I haven't read through all of those ballot issues that people put on there yet."

RW: Okay. Any preliminary thought on the gray wolves, if you looked at that one?

JP: Well, from an implementation standpoint, there was some discussion in the legislature about a compromise plan that Senator Donovan had been working on, where it would pull together the conservation community and some ranchers to try to find a new way. Or from our perspective, we want to make sure that Colorado Parks and Wildlife, is well situated to honor the will of the people if that were to pass. If it doesn't pass, we need to make sure that we have protections for the gray wolf in Colorado. We've done other reintroductions successfully. And I say, "We," it predates me. It's not ... I mean, we, as in Parks and Wildlife, is in the state. Black-footed ferret, Canadian lynx, real success stories in our state. And so, I think what's important is if the voters were to pass this, that Parks and Wildlife is able to implement it successfully.

RW: So we'll go into greater depth at another time. I do want to ask you about the reduction of the State Income Tax. That measure the Colorado Sun recently reported that you spoke favorably about that, quoting here, "Particularly in this challenging time, I think Coloradans certainly need tax relief." Could you say here today, how you would vote on that ballot measure?

JP: Well, tax relief is very important. Cutting the income tax is certainly been one of our top goals from day one. We don't want to do it in a way that costs any revenue to the state. What my goal is, is to eliminate tax loopholes that benefit lobbyists, the well-connected big corporations and then make sure that at least some of that benefit, if not most of it, is reflected in just a lower income tax rate for everybody. So, this initiative could be part of that, meaning it could be the income tax piece but it leaves the work ahead. It's how do we pay for it? Meaning how do we reduce dollar for dollar the loopholes and giveaways to big corporations and the well connected to make sure that if we're giving ourselves a tax cut, that it's not costing money for our schools or our roads or any of our other important public priorities.

RW: Oh, okay. I mean, according to the Sun, estimates show that this tax cut would reduce state revenue by $300 million over the next two fiscal years. So, I think what I hear you saying is that you wouldn't want to see this pass in a vacuum. Other action would be necessary. What I guess, by the legislature.

JP: Yeah. Well, we'd find that 300 ... I think we could find it but we'd have to exactly find ... I think we could find more than that, frankly. There's about $2 billion in loopholes and tax expenditures that go to special interests because of whether they were put in a year ago or a hundred years ago. And we have declared war on these because we think that you're paying too much because others aren't paying enough, simply because they've gotten loopholes and special interest considerations. We want to close a lot of those and reflect that in a lower income tax rate for every Coloradan.

RW: Which would be an effort in concert with. Okay, we have less than a minute governor, a bit of a mood change to wrap. You tweeted recently about a sandwich you ate. Peanut butter, banana, honey and Pueblo Chili. One of our Twitter followers, Danny Churchill wanted to ask you, what the hell was he thinking with that sandwich? In about 30 seconds.

JP: Hey, don't knock it until you've tried it. I mean, I think first of all, Pueblo Chili's good on everything and anything. But I particularly recommend it with banana, peanut butter and honey on a whole wheat Bun and don't knock it till you try it.

RW: Positively Presley-ian of you, Elvis-like. Thanks so much for being with us governor. We appreciate your time and we look forward to chatting again.

JP: Thank you, Ryan. Take care.

RW: That is Colorado's governor, Democrat Jared Polis. Thanks for spending time with us today. You can follow the show on Twitter @ColoradoMatters. I'm @CPRWarner, and we are CPR News on Facebook.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the title of the protest held at Bandimere Speedway.