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Krieger: A baffling mistake as Denver tries to stem the coronavirus pandemic

My ex was hanging out at her home in southeast Denver on Monday afternoon, the way we’re all supposed to these days, when the law of unintended consequences rolled through town like high tide.

But let her tell it:

So I was practicing a prescribed anxiety-reducing activity during the pandemic: immersing myself in a creative distraction by painting. 

I just somewhat sadly decided that my acrylic rendering of Marilyn Monroe looked more like a stricken Bette Midler when my phone rang.

“Are you listening to the news?” my husband asked. Not a good sign. “No, why?”

Dave Krieger. Photo by Cyrus McCrimmon.

“Michael Hancock just ordered liquor stores and pot stores to shut down. Better make a run and get some wine, reds and whites.”

I grabbed my purse, and raced to the nearest large liquor store, the Galaxy, on East Hampden. Like everybody else. 

Fortunately it was early in the scramble to get booze. But after all, who knew how long this order might last? Weeks? Months?

Parking was still doable although I hadn’t seen that many people there before, ever.

Inside, I grabbed a grocery cart, (I know, I know, but how much could I carry?) and did a quick calculation, maybe six each Pinot Noirs and Sauvignon Blancs? Plus an insanely large bottle of vodka, and another of tequila, thinking shopping speed was of the essence. And I didn’t want to be that person who bought a hoarding-level of stuff — not to mention I had a Honda Civic, not a FedEx-size truck, to haul it home in.

Then, I joined one of three increasingly long lines of people trying not to look panicked or embarrassed (“just ordinary wine-shopping here, nothing different.”) But actually everybody in knowing glances communicated sheepishness. After all, having to go cold turkey in the middle of a pandemic seemed cosmically cruel.

Then, like everybody else, I looked at my phone and started texting friends who might “need” to know. My neighbor and psychiatrist Judy asked, “Are people honoring the 6-foot rule?” 

Nope. Everybody was in the usual cramped space in line, possibly infecting each other with novel coronavirus. 

Two boxloads and $220 later, I loaded up my car, but so many drivers had entered the lot I couldn’t back out until somebody gave way.

Finally home, with a trunkload of liquor, I heard the news: Hancock dropped the order and stores can stay open.

We all make bad decisions from time to time and occasionally that causes real harm. But making an obviously bad decision that has people jammed into long lines at precisely the moment they should be keeping their distance?

Thanks. A lot.

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On the bright side, Tuesday was her birthday and she had a rich array of celebratory alternatives.

Hancock issued the original stay-at-home order for Denver a little after 2 p.m. Monday. Unbelievably, although he cautioned against panic-buying, he also suggested it was a good time to stock up before the order kicked in at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

Almost instantaneously, hundreds of Denverites bolted out the door to do exactly that. Photos of long lines and packed aisles started showing up on social media within an hour.

As my ex pointed out, Hancock’s stay-at-home order, the purpose of which was to prevent the sort of mass gatherings in which the novel coronavirus spreads, created scores of exactly that sort of mass gathering all over the metro area.

Less than three hours after the original order was announced, the city tweeted out Hancock’s reversal.

It was baffling. Was it possible that neither the mayor nor anyone in his decision-making inner circle could see the perfectly predictable result of the original order?

Ah, well. Apparently no American history buffs in his inner circle. There are lots of excellent books available on Prohibition, among government’s most spectacularly futile attempts at behavior modification in our history.

You don’t even need to be a reader to get a feel for the Eighteenth Amendment’s long list of unintended consequences, highlighted by the enormous empowerment of organized crime. You can just watch the Ken Burns documentary on PBS.

Luckily, this blind spot was peculiar to the Hancock administration. Pretty much everywhere else, including New York and California, where statewide stay-at-home orders are in place, liquor stores were among the “essential” services exempted from the orders. 

READ: Colorado Sun coronavirus coverage.

This has produced predictable debates about just how liquor — or marijuana in places like Denver and Seattle — qualifies as “essential.” It’s interesting enough, as pointless debates go, especially now that we have so much time on our hands.

But the reason they must be exempted is not that they meet somebody’s definition of “essential.” The reason they must be exempted is that history teaches us precisely how human beings will respond if they’re not. They will do what Denverites — and other metro area residents who foresaw similar rules coming to their jurisdictions — did on Monday.

And once such a ban is in place, which happily did not happen here, all those who failed to stock up in advance will do what so many millions of Americans did during Prohibition. They will break the law.

Based on our 15-year data set — from Jan. 16, 1919, to Dec. 5 1933 — we know now this is Human Behavior 101. You can like it or hate it, but that’s the way it is.

So if you want widespread respect for your stay-at-home order — and public respect is the only enforcement mechanism available — you don’t include any form of Prohibition among the rules. And, no, allowing exceptions like beer at grocery stores or mixed drinks to go at bars and restaurants — akin to the medical exception during Prohibition — does not solve the problem.

Just as many residents suspected, metro area jurisdictions surrounding Denver swiftly replicated the city’s order sans Prohibition.

“The idea of forced sobriety did not go over well in Denver . . .”  tweeted Boulder City Councilwoman Rachel Friend.

As baffling and instructive as this episode was, it is also worth pointing out that Hancock was the first Colorado politician with the fortitude to turn a widely ignored government recommendation into an order. It was his initiative that swiftly produced similar metro-wide orders.

Whether turning an unenforceable recommendation into an unenforceable order will change behavior much remains to be seen. But it is the best a mayor can do, and Hancock deserves credit for doing it. He also deserves credit for reversing his mistake as soon as the counterproductive result became obvious. Social media played a pivotal role in this reversal.

The reason it was left to a mayor is that both the president and the governor declined to do it. Gov. Jared Polis, who had previously been among the most out-front governors in the country on the pandemic, offering daily briefings and establishing an early drive-through testing site, became uncharacteristically hesitant on the question of a stay-at-home order, offering only “guidance” to stay home on Sunday.

His reasoning was unconvincing. The incentive to heed the recommendation to stay home was avoiding “the Grim Reaper,” he said, not imagined enforcement of a state directive.

Of course, if the Grim Reaper were in fact sufficient incentive, neither recommendation nor order would be required. Judging by their behavior in the absence of an order, catching the virus is clearly not sufficient incentive for enough people and businesses to defeat the strategy of mitigation through social distancing. This is why New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued statewide orders.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Then, on Wednesday, following Hancock’s order and the metro area following suit, Polis suddenly reversed course himself, announcing he would impose a statewide stay-at-home order effective Thursday morning. It, too, will exempt liquor stores and marijuana dispensaries, in addition to grocery stores, convenience stories, gun stores, auto supply and repair businesses, oil and gas operations, child care centers and a slew of medical-related activities.

Polis did not explain why he had changed his mind since Sunday, but Denver and other local jurisdictions being out ahead of the state and the number of confirmed Colorado cases exceeding 1,000 may have had something to do with it.

Like Hancock’s reversal, Polis’ might have been a response to facts on the ground that were worse than he expected.

Even Cuomo, the New York governor, who imposed a statewide lockdown while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio dithered, has called his lockdown “a blunt tool” that can be eased and tailored to circumstances in different communities once other mitigation measures — such as testing and contact tracing — become widely available.

Unfortunately, for now, the federal response has been so slow that the U.S. is way behind countries like South Korea that used widespread testing and contact tracing to great effect in limiting the growth of the epidemic within their borders.

In theory, public health specialists say, if we could get all humans to stay at least six feet from one another for two weeks (or well past the coronavirus’ incubation period), existing infections could be identified and segregated, and the current exponential growth in cases could be stopped. Of course, that’s impossible to do.

The closest we can come are these widespread, government-ordered lockdowns, which are clearly more effective in authoritarian countries, where the consequences of disobedience can be severe, than in free countries, where people can ignore government warnings until it’s too late to avoid a tsunami of cases.

That’s presumably why Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi locked down a nation of nearly 1.4 billion people on Wednesday. India had just 606 cases, according to the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus resource center, which ranked the world’s second-largest country 43rd in cases, with still fewer than the Diamond Princess cruise ship alone.

The U.S., on the other hand, has seen exponential growth in the caseload push it up to third in the world, on a trajectory to pass Italy and China if mitigation measures don’t slow the rate of growth soon.

Absent leadership from Washington, it is left to governors, mayors and county health officials to make the calls that national leaders are making elsewhere. There will be stumbles. Officials will have to reverse themselves on the fly, as both the mayor and governor did this week, as each jurisdiction develops its own rules.

But what else can they do?

Here’s one idea: If you’re a local official facing such decisions, maybe add a history buff to your inner circle.


“Marilyn Monroe” — or Bette Midler? By Lori Smith. (Courtesy of Lori Smith)

Dave Krieger has been a Colorado journalist since 1981. @davekrieger


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