Jared Polis’ top deputies appeared before a panel of leading state lawmakers on Tuesday to talk about the governor’s response to the coronavirus crisis.
Specifically, Polis’ surrogates outlined how Colorado has spent billions in federal aid and the ways in which the governor has used his executive authority to prevent COVID-19 from spreading out of control.
The day-long hearing was a result of a bill passed by state lawmakers in recent months in an effort to provide them with more oversight over and insight into how the governor has handled the pandemic.
Here are five big takeaways from the hearing:
$19 billion in federal aid, but more is needed
Colorado has received more than $19 billion in federal coronavirus aid since the pandemic began, the largest portion — $10 billion — of which came in the form of Paycheck Protection Program loans to small and medium-sized businesses.
(The Colorado Sun was a recipient of one such loan)
Another $4.4 billion flowed to the state in the form of direct stimulus checks to Coloradans, while $1 billion went toward increasing unemployment benefits for people who lost their jobs.
State government received about $3 billion, the bulk of which Polis directed to schools. He also distributed the money to local governments and the state legislature, which in turn used the money to help people facing housing insecurity and to give grants to small businesses.
Lauren Larson, Polis’ director of state planning and budgeting, said Colorado needs more money to weather the economic effects of the crisis.
“It’s not enough to offset the loss of economic activity, certainly,” Larson said. “I don’t think it’s close to filling the hole.”
The state’s disaster emergency fund is running low and the unemployment trust fund is about to run out of money and start operating with a loan from the federal government.
“It’s hard to underestimate the importance of getting additional federal support,” Larson said. “I hope we all can be encouraging our federal delegation to help with this. We’re really in a very tight situation for the next budget year and for our emergency expenses.”
Unemployment has leveled off, but trouble looms
The good news? New unemployment filings in Colorado have leveled off. The bad news? More than 300,000 people remain out of work and receiving payouts from the state.
“We’re in a situation that’s very drastic,” Larson said. “It’s somewhat at a plateau level right now, but that’s certainly not guaranteed to stay that way.”
Larson said the governor’s office believes that if the $600 a week in extra unemployment payments from the federal government aren’t extended by Congress, there could be a 7% decline in sales tax revenue “that would go away instantly.”
Meanwhile, there are economic indicators that are worrisome.
Larson said while 95.7% of Colorado renters paid their rent in July — compared to 96.6% during the same month in 2019 — one in five adults surveyed said they have low confidence they can pay the next month’s rent or mortgage on time.
Senator Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Parker Republican, expressed concern that the state isn’t doing enough to help mortgage holders as it focuses on ways to keep renters in their homes. But Larson said that has been, in fact, part of Colorado’s focus.
“We can’t protect renters without also looking at the impact on the property owners,” she said,” and we’re looking very closely at both sides of the coin.”
Also, the number of people on permanent layoff status held steady in July and the state ranks seventh on a list of the highest rate of business closures in the U.S.
“We’re very concerned and watching that,” Larson said.
155 executive orders — so far
Since March 11, Polis has issued 155 executive orders relating to coronavirus. As of Monday, 25 of them remained in effect.
The orders have run the gamut, from allowing food trucks at rest stops to requiring Coloradans to wear masks in indoor, public places. Some of the orders were issued to extend or amend earlier orders.
Lawmakers — both Democrats and Republicans — asked the most questions about Polis’ power and the use of it through executive action. House Speaker KC Becker, D-Boulder, said there needed to be more transparency with groups affected by the orders.
“The school districts that are trying to figure out what to do, the public health agencies that are trying to figure out what to do,” Becker said. “One thing they brought to me is they want a single point of contact and they want a heads up before it’s coming because suddenly there’s a new executive order they have to implement and they didn’t know it was coming.”
Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat and top state budget writer, wanted information on Polis’ ability to use executive orders to enact policies that have the effect of law.
House Minority Leader Minority Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican and top critic of the governor’s response to the pandemic, asked for a breakdown of how many state laws have been affected by the governor’s orders.
Holbert, finally, requested that the legislature post an explanation of Polis’ executive authority on its website to help the public understand how the governor was operating and within what legal grounds. He also pleaded with the Polis administration to make sure policies do not hurt one industry or businesses more than another.
“Allow the people of Colorado to operate on a level playing field,” he said.
How coronavirus is spreading in Colorado
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, provided more details on how the coronavirus is spreading in Colorado — and just how far behind on testing the state was when the pandemic began.
As of Tuesday, she said, the “R naught” value in Colorado — the amount the virus is spreading in the state — was 0.64. That means that each person who has the disease is spreading it to less than one other person, a rate that, if continued, would mean that COVID-19’s prevalence is shrinking.
“You can see what a difference just a small change in the reproductive number makes in more disease transmissions, which contributes to increased hospitalization,” she said.
Public health officials estimate that about 273,000 people — or 4.7% of Colorado’s population — have been infected with COVID-19. Most of those cases have gone undetected because of either a dearth of testing or because the people never showed symptoms.
The Polis team presented a graph showing how at the start of the coronavirus crisis in Colorado, only a fraction of the forecast number of cases were being detected. Now, the state is much better at screening and thus a greater percentage of those who catch the virus are being identified.
“Because there is such widespread asymptomatic transmission, it’s estimated that about 40% of new cases are acquired from somebody who doesn’t have symptoms,” said Kacey Wulff, the governor’s senior adviser for COVID-19 response. “So 40% of our cases are spread by somebody who doesn’t even know that they’re sick.”
Becker pressed Polis administration officials on why they aren’t providing the public with more information about asymptomatic cases. “That seems like really important information to understand whether we are overwhelming our health care system and no one is talking about it,” she said. “I meet person after person who got tested, found out they were positive, never had a symptom.”
Health officials say they haven’t been tracking whether people who test positive show symptoms or not.
Rep. Julie McCluskie, a Dillon Democrat and state budget writer, said mountain communities have seen a big influx of out-of-state visitors in recent weeks. She asked how CDPHE is tracking people who test positive once they arrive in Colorado.
Hunsaker Ryan said the short answer is that the state is not tracking them, especially if they don’t have a Colorado address.
“If they put their local address then they are considered a Colorado case,” she said. “At the beginning of the epidemic, we were doing more tracking of out-of-state visitors and cases, but with the case count so high now we are not doing that anymore.”
Lawmakers worry about schools
Another hot topic during Tuesday’s hearings was the return of in-person learning at schools. Districts across Colorado have taken differing approaches as to whether to delay having students back in class, simply opt for remote learning, or embrace some hybrid model of both in-person and remote learning.
Polis’ deputies said they are working to provide guidance to districts as quickly as possible. They are expecting to update recommendations they’ve already drafted in the coming days and weeks as more information about the virus and education is gleaned across the globe.
“I think the really important key here is that this is a living document, because we have never done this before,” Wulff said. “And the data on how kids really are impacted and what the risk is for kids and teachers and other administrators is something as a country, and as a state — even in the next few weeks were going to be learning more.”
Hunsaker Ryan told lawmakers to brace for an increase in coronavirus’ spread as kids head back to class.
“We expect ‘R naught’ value will rise in the fall when school is back in session,” she said. “We will be watching this metric very carefully.”
Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, D-Arvada, pressed the Polis administration to do more to aid child care facilities, while Rep. Daneya Esgar, D-Pueblo, expressed concern that educators aren’t being given enough personal protective equipment.
Polis’ team committed to making both a priority.