Polis Expects Enough State Employees To Work From Home That Colorado Can Save A Million Square Feet Of Office Space

August 20, 2021
TRANSPORTATION-BILL-SIGNING-POLIS-11TRANSPORTATION-BILL-SIGNING-POLIS-11Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis at a signing ceremony for SB21-260 on Thursday, June 17, 2021, underneath Interstate 70 at the bottom of Floyd Hill, beside Clear Creek.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis figures about 20 percent of the state workforce will continue to work from home after the pandemic, saving the state about 1 million square feet of office space.

“We think that the new normal will be somewhere around 20 percent telecommuting, many private sector companies are doing the same thing. So we are very excited about that,” Polis told Colorado Matters.

Having more of the workforce at home could help the growing problems of pollution and climate change, he said. The state has issued 55 ozone action alerts so far this year — the highest number on record. Vehicles are one of the main contributors to ozone, but Polis’ administration recently scrapped a proposal that would have required many large employers to limit the number of their employees commuting to work. 

Polis said his administration has a new transportation plan to cut emissions and he touted increased sales of electric vehicles. Asked whether Coloradans would ultimately have to drive less to cut emissions, he said the answer may lie in people moving closer to their jobs.

“I think that most Coloradans would really appreciate being able to live near their work. Coloradans don’t like — no one likes a long commute,” he said. “So it ties into the housing affordability crisis and how we can find, as part of our metro-wide and statewide planning, the opportunity for more Coloradans to live closer to where they work … that’s a solution that really  improves the quality of life for Coloradans and also significantly reduces emissions from vehicles.”


Interview Highlights

On the push for alternatives to I-70:

The road has been closed repeatedly this summer due to mudslides. Polis said the state will spend what it takes to create new ways for truckers and other motorists to cross the Rockies.

“The costs of improvements for the alternative routes are far less than the economic damage that ensues, particularly when Glenwood Canyon is closed during a busy time,” Polis said. “We need to have several redundant, alternative routes and of course the additional work to do everything we can to minimize closures on I-70.”

On why he hasn’t imposed a school mask mandate, despite recommendations by the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatricians:

“Our state — the governor doesn't run the school districts. And we agree with that guidance. Our state guidance does recommend universal mask-wearing. And the piece that we have added to that is (to recommend masks) especially for those who are not vaccinated … there is a benefit for wearing masks for those who are vaccinated, but it is a much greater difference in risk for those who are unvaccinated.”

On whether he could legally impose a mandate:

“Whenever an emergency power is used, it's often litigated. We've only lost one of our (emergency) steps that we took to protect people and it actually had to do more with online elections and how people can petition online. Every other step that we've taken during this pandemic, and that have successfully led to Colorado having the 10th lowest death rate per capita of any state, was either sustained by the courts, allowed by the courts or wasn't challenged. So this particular one has not been challenged, so I wouldn't really apply it to what a court might say but I can just tell you that everything we've done, we've only lost one so far.”

On rolling out booster shots:

“The third dose is now available. If you have moderate immunocompromisation please go out and get it. You know, there's many people that are in their 70s and 80s that are getting it today, with weakened immune systems and we were making it easy. You don't need to worry about getting a note from your doctor or anything like that. You simply say that you have a moderate or severe, I mean, condition. It'll also be widely available to everybody in about one month. And we're making plans to focus particularly on getting that third dose to those that live in nursing homes and senior care facilities, because it does offer an additional degree of protection is what the data shows.”


Read The Transcript


Ryan Warner: And Governor Jared Polis is with us live this morning. Let's jump right in. Governor, welcome to the program.

Gov. Jared Polis: Good morning Ryan, always a pleasure. 

RW: 178 school districts in Colorado are deciding separately what their mask policy is. That's as COVID cases and hospitalizations rise. The Delta variant means that boosters have started, but of course there's no vaccine for kids under 12. Is there any point at which you'd step in and order a statewide mask mandate for schools as you did for the general public early on in the pandemic?

JP: Schools are back. My kids are back, they’re 9 and 7. Across the state, you know, parents, I think, are excited that in-person education is occurring everywhere. And I was really, a lot of work that went into making sure that we had in-person education last year, we convened a back-to- school task force early and our kids were back in a safe way while in many other states they were still doing remote even through the entire year in some states.

In our state, we are providing schools with science-based information about the best way to maintain a safe environment. We sent not just a letter to superintendents outlining the importance of this but we also provide free medical-grade masks to all schools and free testing, which is key. And I think if there's one area that I wish got more attention it was testing.

You know, obviously many districts are employing masks and there's no question that they help, they help reduce transmission, but testing and screening is also extremely valuable and we have that available for, you know, weekly testing of every student. And we'd love to see more districts take us up on that. 

So really there's no one answer is the short answer, Ryan. Districts are really working with their local public health departments with the guidance we gave them and looking at how they can implement what we call a layered approach, meaning you can't just say, kids are wearing masks and that's all we're doing, but it's a combination of things. And in some areas that includes required mask wearing and other areas it's kids that want to wear a mask are wearing masks.

RW: Throughout the pandemic and in fact, just in the last few seconds there, you've said that your decisions are guided by science. The CDC recommends universal masking in schools, regardless of vaccination status. So does the American Academy of Pediatrics. A group of 19 Colorado health organizations released a statement urging the same. So as the state's chief executive, helping understand why you don't see yourself as the implementer of that science. 

JP: In our state the governor doesn't run the school districts. And we agree with that (CDC) guidance. Our state guidance does recommend universal mask wearing. And the piece that we have added to that is, especially for those who are not vaccinated. I remember for a while the CDC was only recommending mask wearing for those who were unvaccinated. They then moved to everybody. And when you implement it at a school level sometimes that means everybody -- and it does in some districts -- but we wanted to add, especially for those who are unvaccinated. There is a benefit for wearing masks for those who are vaccinated, but it is a much greater difference in risk for those who are unvaccinated. So our recommendations are consistent with the American Society of Pediatricians, consistent with the CDC, and we've actually gone above and beyond that in terms of providing free medical-grade masks to schools, which have a higher level of protection than the cloth mask that I wear on most occasions and you probably do too. But for those who want that extra level of protection, medical-grade masks can provide it.

RW: Just to put a finer point on this before we move on to some other topics. Are you saying that you lack the power entirely as governor to Institute a school mask mandate? Or are you saying it's a power that you choose not to use in deference to local control?

JP: Well, we provide the guidance as does the CDC. The CDC is not...

RW: I guess I'm asking, legally do you have the power.

JP: Well, you know, whenever an emergency power is used, Ryan, it's often litigated. We've only lost one of our steps that we took to protect people and it actually had to do more with online elections and how people can petition online. Every other step that we've taken during this pandemic, and that have successfully led to Colorado having the 10th lowest death rate per capita of any state, was either sustained by the courts, allowed by the courts or wasn't challenged. So this particular one, Ryan has not been challenged, so I wouldn't really apply it to what a court might say, but I can just tell you that everything we've done, we've only, we've only lost one so far.

RW: That is to say, you would have the ability to do this. It might be challenged by a court, but you are choosing not to use that power in deference to, as I say, Colorado's some 178 school districts.

You will have been vaccinated, Governor, you've also had COVID -- that was before there were vaccines. Have you personally added back any of the precautions you were taking early on, you know, at the grocery store, what have you?

JP: At this point in the pandemic I wear a mask when I'm around a lot of other people indoors. And so, you know, if I'm going to be in an area with a number of folks I will wear it. I did wear one at the grocery store the other day. I wouldn't say I do that religiously but I generally would wear one, especially if there's a lot of people shopping. And I do that really to, to not be recognized, so people don't bother me. No, just kidding Ryan. I do it because I want to set that tone and I think, you know, I see some people masked and some people unmasked at the grocery store, and I don't want that on my shoulders that I might be transmitting the virus with an asymptomatic case. And so I think it's a good precaution to do. And we also, as a family, use testing if we're going to see my parents who are in their late 70s. You know they're very careful and they want to make sure that, you know, I get tested before we go see them.

RW: I'd like to talk about climate change and air quality. The state has issued 55 ozone action alerts so far this year, the highest number of these pollution warnings on record. Vehicles are one of the primary contributors. But your administration recently scrapped a proposal from the air pollution control division to help large employers cut down on automobile travel. Why back off of that?

JP: So we have a new process. The draft just went out this last Monday on transportation planning. And this is really a first-in-the-nation process for how our department of transportation as well as the metropolitan region that fund transportation projects, how they select and account for emissions from every transportation project. So that can include short, medium, and long-term vision. It looks at what steps are being done with mitigating. So as every project is being planned, it could be something like an improvement of an exit ramp could be something like a lane expansion. It implements a key provision of how we can directly tie that in to carbon emission reductions or, if you will, meeting the carbon emission budget, which we need deep improvements from the transportation sector. 

Now the single most exciting thing in the transportation sector, Ryan, is the electrification of vehicles. Six percent of vehicles sold in the first quarter of this year were electric, it's going up even faster than we thought. And we're planning for that with the fast-charging infrastructure, with bringing more electric vehicles to market, and that is going to be a big part of meeting those emission reductions from transportation as well.

RW: And so you see a brighter future for electric vehicles. I guess I'm curious if you think to meet its carbon reduction goals the folks in Colorado need to drive less. That was part of that plan. Do you think fundamentally there ought to be less driving in Colorado in the face of climate change? 

JP: I think that most Coloradans would really appreciate being able to live closer to work. Coloradans don't like, no one likes, a long commute, so it ties into the housing affordability crisis and how we can find as part of our metrowide and statewide planning the opportunity for more Coloradans to live closer to where they work, whether that means they get to work by bike, e-bike or walking, or whether it means a five minute drive instead of a 30-minute drive, that's a solution that really improves the quality of life for Coloradans and also significantly reduces emissions from vehicles.

RW: Isn’t that a much more fundamental change, getting people to move closer to where they work or for their companies to move closer to where folks live than simply encouraging people to telework?

JP: Well, people want that. People want to live close to where they work, and we love telework and location-independent employment, to be clear. In fact, the state we're reducing our square footage of our state offices by a million square feet because we're going to, you know, 10, 20% telecommuting. We were at about 1% before the pandemic, obviously like many companies, we briefly went to 60, 70% telecommuting. We feel that there are greater efficiencies, you know, in the water cooler chat and people seeing one another but we think that the new normal will be somewhere around 20% telecommuting. Many private sector companies are doing the same thing. So we are very excited about that. We actually through the Office of Economic Development and International Trade, created specific incentives around location-independent employment. That's a fancy word for telecommuting Ryan. Location-independent means you can live anywhere and often people live in, can live in rural areas. We particularly tout this as a way that people can live in rural areas and have good jobs no matter where they live in our great state.

RW: Governor, I want to talk about the shutdowns of the I-70 corridor. This is also related to climate change, which we were talking about before the break. Last summer's wildfires caused mudslides -- warming, temperatures, drought, erratic weather are at the heart of all of this. And, you know, I-70 is hugely important not just to travel but to interstate commerce. What's a long-term fix there? 

JP: Well, this is another example of the face of climate change and how it directly impacts our quality of life. This was the Grizzly Creek fire last year essentially removed vegetation from Glenwood Canyon. We had our three largest wildfires in the history of our entire state last year and while this year we've been, you know, somewhat more fortunate so far with several minor fires the West is not, and we're experiencing the terrible air quality and smoke from particularly the Dixie fire in California, which has over 400,000 acres, more than twice the size of our largest fires. So essentially when you remove any vegetation that can hold back mud and silt and there's a period of precipitation, and we had a six or seven day period where we had about a month's worth of precipitation in a very short period, there was very little to hold the mud back and Glenwood Canyon, I-70 was covered by about 10 to 15 feet of mud. The Colorado Department of Transportation worked tirelessly cleaning it out to get it open. Once we dug everything up the road was only severely structurally damaged in a couple places, and we put temporary fixes in place to get that opened as quickly as possible.

RW: And what is the long-term fix here? I mean, we heard from a former CDOT engineer that really much of the I-70 corridor is going to have to be made more resilient, not just Glenwood Canyon, in the face of climate change.

JP; That's correct. So there has been a long interest from our administration and for me in having alternative routes for both heavy truck traffic as well as for tourists, as well as for locals. A lot of those are not state roads, which means that the work continues with Garfield County and Eagle County in particular to make the improvements. We need to have several redundant, alternative routes. And of course the additional work to do everything we can to minimize closures on highway 70 in Glenwood Canyon because that will, regardless of the alternative routes, generally be the fastest and the safest way to get across the area, both for trucking and for individuals.

RW: I think you're making an allusion there to Cottonwood Pass in particular. This is going to be an expensive endeavor and politically it might be touchy too, huh?

JP: Well the costs of the improvements for the alternative routes are far less than the economic damage that ensues particularly when Glenwood Canyon is closed during a busy time. And it's something simply the state can't afford to do to have a several hour bypass. We can't afford to have the heavy truck traffic coming into cities like Steamboat and damaging the local roads. So it really is something that's necessary to have those routes. And we are working closely with Eagle and Garfield county to figure out the pathway to get it done as quickly as possible.

RW: And there are no doubt some federal funds involved in this as well.

JP: Absolutely. In fact we've applied for over $110 million in federal funds. $11 million has already been dispersed for the immediate repairs, but one of the areas that we'll be able to support is those alternative routes that are close by. 

RW: I wonder if it feels at times like this is a game of climate change whack-a-mole, one environmental problem leads to another, and then there's a different crisis that pops up. And I wonder if it makes you ask yourself if your administration is moving fast enough on climate change, has there been any part of you this past summer that says we got to pick up the pace, we might even need to make people a little uncomfortable and make changes that mean their lifestyle's heading in a different direction? 

JP: Well you know I'm of course thrilled to see the ground shift in a favorable way. When I ran for governor, I ran on a bold agenda of Colorado achieving a hundred percent renewable energy by 2040. That was seen as bold, even by my political opponents as radical at the time. I'm glad to see the world has moved in that direction. And now people are advocating for even earlier dates. We will be, and I have a high degree of confidence, at about 80% renewable energy in 2030, that's just eight and a half years from now. We are moving fast and I'm excited that Colorado is really a national story that other states are emulating and, and looking at some of our policies that are helping to get us there.

RW: You've been touring the state this summer, something you haven't had much opportunity to do during the pandemic and that we are actually going to be hitting the road as well on Colorado Matters. One theme we're hearing in virtually every place we're planning to stop is the cost of housing, how unaffordable it's become in a wide variety of communities. I know you have heard this too, and I wonder if you have heard something that has gotten you thinking differently about this, or introduced you to an approach that works.

JP: Well. I hope to see you out and about the state, let us know and we'll have to meet up somewhere. You know, housing is an issue everywhere you go, it could be workforce housing in our tourism communities or in our ag communities. It could be of course in our suburban and urban communities, where middle-class and lower-income, hourly workers are able to live. It's becoming a major issue, but there's also a great set of exciting progress across the state where communities are really rising to the occasion. One of the main areas of focus that Colorado is doing from our federal stimulus funds. So we're deploying a sizable amount of those to simply build more housing near where people work, along transit corridors where people need it. Now, as you travel the state, I encourage you when you're near Steamboat Springs to visit the new 536 acre site that was donated from an anonymous donor to the Yampa Valley Housing Authority, that will be able to support four or 5,000 residents, which really will in this case, it's exciting to rather than be, you know, digging out of a hole, that'll actually, once it's planned, meet the workforce housing needs of the Yampa Valley Housing Authority area in Steamboat Springs. So, you know, land is at a premium, but it takes land, it takes developers, it takes public private partnerships, and it's an imperative throughout the state. And our goal as the state is to really empower those creative solutions at the local level, with support and leverage from the state level. 

RW: With support and leverage from the state level. I mean, you have an office of saving people money on health care. Is it time to mount a state office of finding people places they can afford to live?

JP: Yeah, that's a good way to look at it. We do that through a, that might be a good way, a good name for it. Ryan, if you ever get laid off or from CPR, you'll have to apply for a communications job in my administration. 'Cause that's an excellent branding idea you just had, but we do it through the Department of Local Affairs, DOLA.  So really that's our state agency. Rick Garcia is the head of that. He partners with local government. So the way it might look is there's a local government and we also have an effort across our state government to identify state-owned land, where we can then convey that to either a housing authority or to a public private partnership for housing. So we're leveraging every asset we have at the state and working with. And I liked your idea about, you know, maybe we can, maybe we can market that a little bit better too.

RW: You know, marketing only goes so far in the face of a problem that we are hearing about statewide, but I just want to wrap up with what you might be planning into the fall for your administration. On Thursday,. I'll note that Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper announced he has COVID. He also expressed, by the way, gratitude to be vaccinated. We know that third doses of the MRNA vaccines were already going into arms with more coming. So indeed take us into your administration's planning for the fall. What are you bracing for preparing for, preparing for in the last few minutes.

JP; Well, we certainly wish Senator Hickenlooper well and what we are finding, as you know, is that while the vaccine is very effective at preventing cases, it's even more effective at preventing hospitalizations or severe cases for those who contract the virus. So if you have a few listeners that haven't gotten the vaccine yet, and I hope you don't because your listeners are very well-educated, Ryan, but if you do, when you're listening to this, please go out and get the vaccine. We would all be worried about Senator Hickenlooper much more if he had not been vaccinated and the fact that he is, is a great consolation not only to him but the people of Colorado. So please get back vaccinated, highly effective vaccines are out there. I did and so did Senator Hickenlooper and so did Republicans and Democrats, including President Trump and President Biden.

The third dose is now available if you have moderate immunocompromisation please go out and get it. You know, there's many people that are in their 70s and 80s that are getting it today, with weakened immune systems, and we're making it easy. You just need to self-attest. You don't need to worry about getting a note from your doctor or anything like that. You simply say that you have a moderate or severe immune condition. It'll also be widely available to everybody in about one month. And we're making plans to focus particularly on getting that third dose to those that live in nursing homes and senior care facilities, because it does offer an additional degree of protection is what the data shows

RW: We have just about a minute governor, and there's something I want to pick up on that you said there, you called our listeners educated, and you equated that with vaccination. Is it your sense that people who are unvaccinated are uneducated at this point? 

JP: I'm not referring to a formal degree of education, Ryan. I don't mean that, you know, because somebody has a college degree or high school degree, they're educated. What I mean is educated with regard to the cost and benefit of the vaccine. And it's one of those things where it's not even like it's a marginal case. Oh, like, you know, maybe there's a little benefit. You, you weigh it. And, if you look at it in any type of, you know, objective way, the benefits are hundreds of times greater than, you know, having a sore arm the next day or, or, you know, having a headache the next day, are you know having a 99 degree fever the next day, I mean, the benefits are hundreds of times greater because this is a deadly virus, and it turns into a manageable virus once you're vaccinated with significantly lower hospitalization rates, negligible hospitalization rates, as well as reducing the transmission. So if people are out there I encourage you to get educated on the matter of the vaccine. And that means looking at legitimate sources of information, CDC, the World Health Organization and doctors.

RW: That is Democratic Governor Jared Polis, as we run up against the clock, Governor, grateful for your time as always.

You care.

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