Polis misses the mark without stay-at-home order

Governor normally trusts data but now contradicts it as COVID cases grow

Gov. Jared Polis signed a series of bills during a July 8, 2020, ceremony at Red Rocks Community College in Arvada. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)

One of the things I’ve always liked about Gov. Jared Polis is his affinity for data. As a proud owner of tweed jackets with elbow patches, my brain lights up like a Christmas tree when he casually tweets about quantum mechanics or Schrödinger’s cat.

Polis’ quirks aren’t new to me. I spent roughly 10 years at his congressional town halls where he kicked it in polo shirts and suit jackets long before his blue sneakers ran statewide. Whether or not I agreed with him, I could almost always appreciate his data-driven positions and logical rationales. Over time, I’ve come to genuinely like and respect the guy — which is why it pains me all the more to have watched on Monday what was hands down his worst COVID-19 press update to date.

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By and large, Polis’ response to the pandemic has been strong amid exceptionally challenging political times. His briefings are (usually) clear, concise and on point. He includes experts and graphs fit for the Doogie Howsers and Sheldon Coopers of the world, yet they remain accessible. He stays up to date on the latest science, riffing on R-naughts and standard deviations, and rolling words like “epidemiological” off his tongue more easily than his fluent Spanish. He’s taken hard stances — and at times controversial stances — like being among the earliest states to reopen. Until recently, Colorado’s overall numbers proved his penchant for methodical response had been a success, remaining low even as the virus crept up in surrounding states. Sure, there have been some questionable decisions and even missteps along the way, but overwhelmingly the data are clear: In these unprecedented times, Colorado as a whole has fared better than most under his leadership.

Except, suddenly, someone appears to have stolen his data cheat sheet. 

Monday’s Polis was a Polis I almost didn’t recognize. Not one but multiple statements were not just off, they were factually inaccurate — a rarity for the former Silicon Valley superstar. His rationales contradicted his own data on multiple occasions, and at one point his calm demeanor turned to almost annoyed denial of responsibility when journalists doubled-down on the fundamental question: If COVID-19 cases are at an all-time high in Colorado, why aren’t we resuming stay-at-home orders? We never really got an answer, mostly because there isn’t one.

As I write, more people have COVID-19 than at any point this year in Colorado. Over 1,000 people are in the hospital, with hospitals reporting 82% of ICU beds at capacity. Almost one-fifth of hospitals expect staff shortages within one week, and 12% expect ICU bed shortages. Daily positivity rates have increased for 10 days straight — reaching a whopping 12% — and the state’s public health officials are begging for more action. Instead, we’re operating as if nothing has changed, the risk of infection now reaching 1 in 100 persons. That’s an exposure risk reachable with a single trip to the grocery store.

It is impossible to cite these statistics in one sentence, and in another tiptoe around stay-at-home orders. Clearly, if Coloradans could be left to their own devices we wouldn’t be about to overrun our hospitals. In Polis’ own words, people and businesses failing to act “affects whole regions,” which is exactly why larger policy is required. With the holidays a few weeks out, failing to enact stay-at-home mandates will only create a whole new world of hurt. Particularly in a state that just voted by 12 percentage points for a president who will clamp down on COVID-19, now is not the time to placate far-right science-deniers who want their freedom in the form of refrigerated semi-trucks for body disposal.

Yet it wasn’t just his staunch refusal for stay-at-home orders. From statements practically declaring victory on Pfizer’s preliminary vaccine data, to quips such as, “I’m not concerned by folks who might not want to get the vaccine,” there’s no denying Polis was playing fast and loose with the facts. And we know he knows better: Not only do polls show record lows around 50% for COVID-19 vaccine acceptance — well below Polis’ acknowledgement of 70-80% compliance for herd immunity — but Polis himself told “Colorado Matters” in 2019 that the state’s low vaccination rates concerned him and he was working to elevate the issue.

Most confounding of all was Polis’ insistence that we are seeing “a light at the end of the tunnel.” I’m a bit speechless and genuinely unsure where this is coming from when, by the very data Polis presented, the tunnel is clearly about to get much, much darker before it gets lighter. I understand the desire to provide hope, but one can inspire without throwing out the abacus.

Perhaps I’m just missing Polis’ political savvy on this one. Perhaps he is aware that he said enough to rile folks like me into writing a column on the importance of “Stay at Home” so he doesn’t actually have to enact it — an appeal to his well-known libertarian streak. I get it. I grew up in the backwoods of a state with the slogan “Live free or die.” But we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one, governor, ‘cause it’s pretty hard to “live free” when you’re hooked up to a ventilator.

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