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Coronavirus

The behind-the-scenes story of being Gov. Jared Polis during Colorado’s coronavirus crisis

“Who would think losing 6,000 people could ever be a win instead of 8,000? It’s just horrific every day,” the Democrat said.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis gives an update about the extent of the coronavirus in Colorado during a news conference on March 11, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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A little more than a month into Colorado’s battle with coronavirus, Gov. Jared Polis and his team reached the helpless realization that there was no end in sight. 

At that point, more than 8,000 people had tested positive for the disease and over 350 had died, including scores living in senior-care centers. The stay-at-home order imposed by the governor was costing people their livelihoods. Personal protective equipment and coronavirus test kits were still nearly impossible to come by. 

Polis had no choice but to tell Coloradans that things would only get worse. He could try to limit the devastation, but he couldn’t prevent it. “Coronavirus is going to be part of our lives,” he conceded at an April 15, 2020, news conference at the governor’s mansion. “We’re going to have to live with it.”

This is part of a weeklong series marking a year since COVID-19 was first detected in Colorado. The state’s first confirmed cases were announced March 5, 2020.

>> READ THE REST OF THE SERIES

Then came the now-infamous question from a reporter about his response to the pandemic: Had the governor heard people were likening him, a Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, to a Nazi? There was pressure building on him from fellow Democrats to keep onerous restrictions in place, outrage from Republicans that he wasn’t rolling them back, frustration from businesses on the verge of closing and pleas for help from local public health agencies. 

The anxious public, meanwhile, was waiting for direction. 

The normally coolheaded politician quickly launched into one of his classic, confident responses from the lonely island of his lectern. Polis made it about a dozen words before he broke down in tears. For the first and only time since the coronavirus reached Colorado, his public-facing wall of confidence cracked.

“We act to save lives,” the governor said, choking back emotion. “The exact opposite” of what the Nazis did.

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the governor’s mansion in Denver on April 15, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

To observers, it may have seemed Polis was simply overwhelmed by the offensive comparison. To those close to the governor, however, his reaction was also part of a watershed moment in Colorado’s pandemic response.

“You were coming to terms with ‘we couldn’t fix everything,’” Lisa Kaufmann, Polis’ chief of staff and longtime confidant, told the governor recently. 

The Colorado Sun was granted hours of behind-the-scenes access last week to get a sense of what goes into each day of the state’s coronavirus response as Colorado approaches the one-year anniversary Friday of when the disease was first detected here.

Polis also spoke to The Sun at length, sharing previously untold stories about COVID-19 — which he and his partner, Marlon Reis, both contracted — and how the public health crisis has been a major challenge for him professionally and personally. 

“You’re in a triage situation,” Polis said in an interview, explaining how he has often had to go against his instincts in order to keep the public safe. “You know there’s going to be lives lost. Who would think losing 6,000 people could ever be a win instead of 8,000? It’s just horrific every day.”

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Additionally, The Sun interviewed a number of the governor’s critics and supporters about his job performance over the past year. While most said he responded well to an untenable situation, at times they vehemently disagreed with his actions.

Still, the governor’s job approval rating has been consistent even as Colorado’s unemployment rate rose to among the worst in the country.

“I think the governor did the best he could with the information we had,” said state Sen. Paul Lundeen, a Monument Republican and Polis critic. 

“It was go time”

Polis and his top deputies huddled in a room at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment headquarters in east Denver. It was the afternoon of March 5, 2020, and they were putting the final touches on their plan to announce that Colorado had its first confirmed case of COVID-19. It was in a California man who had recently traveled to Italy and now was in Summit County to ski.

Then Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s top epidemiologist, received a phone call. There was another case. This one was an older woman in Douglas County who had just returned home from a cruise.

“It was go time,” Polis said. “We knew that this was going to rapidly erupt here because there were examples in other parts of the world where this had already happened.”

COVID-19 likely reached Colorado weeks, if not months, earlier. The California man was almost certainly not the first case. “He probably was the 1,000th or 10,000th person in our state to get it,” Polis now says. 

Gov. Jared Polis, surrounded by his public health team, speaks at a news conference about the coronavirus, on March 3, 2020. Two days later, the governor would announce the state’s first cases. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Polis hadn’t interacted much with his public health team, including Herlihy, incident commander Scott Bookman and Dr. Eric France, the state’s chief medical officer, before coronavirus. They had only worked together on some relatively minor problems. “It sounds quaint now, but we had mumps outbreaks in Summit County,” Polis said.

That meant he had to get up to speed with both a complicated virus and the people he would come to rely on for the next year to fight it. 

“The governor worked very hard to understand not only the disease, (but) the epidemiology,” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Polis’ pick to lead the CDPHE. “I think he really leaned in to understand. We were giving him as much information daily as he could absorb.”

Now, the governor says he reads every article published about COVID-19. He scans Reddit for more information. He often sends Herlihy links late at night. 

In the early days, however, there wasn’t much information available. The governor, for instance, told the public not to worry that the California man had spread coronavirus at Denver International Airport as he traveled to Colorado because he was asymptomatic during his flight. 

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“SARS-CoV-2 is such a novel virus,” Hunsaker Ryan said in an interview last month. “No other virus behaves like this. Between the asymptomatic transmission that can be up to 50% of infections, but also just the nature of the continuum of clinical presentation from no symptoms to mild to serious to death. In the beginning there was so much we — the collective ‘we’ around the globe — did not understand.”

Health workers collect patient information from people waiting to be tested for COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, outside the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s lab in Denver’s Lowry neighborhood on March 11, 2020. (John Ingold, The Colorado Sun)

In coronavirus, the governor met his match. 

Polis has spent his life rising quickly through the ranks as an entrepreneur and in politics by trying to outsmart and outwork others. He’s parlayed success into more success. But coronavirus doesn’t care how hard Jared Polis works. It doesn’t care who he knows. It definitely doesn’t care how much money he has.

“It’s a problem that by its very nature can’t be solved,” he said. “You can’t work all night until 4 in the morning and 5 in the morning and fix this. That’s very frustrating.”

The Trump administration’s “gaslighting”

Two days after Polis announced Colorado’s first coronavirus cases, Vice President Mike Pence called the governor to discuss the state’s request for more test kits. 

Pence said Colorado, which at that point had the capacity to test only about 160 people a day, had enough supplies. The governor told him it wasn’t enough. 

The back-and-forth sparring, described by a top aide to Polis as a 20-round bout, served as a preview of the lack of help Colorado would get from the Trump administration. Not long after the Pence phone call, Polis and other governors were on a call with President Donald Trump, who told the state leaders they were on their own

“We were all still meeting in person and some of us were sitting around the governor’s round table in his office when it was said and we were kind of in shock,” Kaufmann said. “That was really early and it really kind of set the tone for the partnership — or the lack thereof — with the previous administration.”

Kaufmann accused the Trump administration of “gaslighting” Colorado by repeatedly telling the state it didn’t need supplies that it did, in fact, really need.

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The lack of a national, unified response also pitted states against each other in their search for personal protective equipment and test kits. The free-for-all led Polis to pursue some desperate measures, including the ultimately scrapped plan of sending a jumbo jet to Asia to verify and import supplies.

“One time, I called a college classmate of mine who is a doctor in Philadelphia to check out a warehouse in (New) Jersey that allegedly had some masks. He went there and, no surprise, they weren’t the masks that we thought, so we didn’t buy them,” Polis said. “It literally came to governors having to send a buddy in Jersey to check out a warehouse.”

Lt. Col. Larry Dale Caswell, Albuquerque district commander for the Army Corps of Engineers, speaks to Gov. Jared Polis, right, at the Colorado Convention Center on April 10, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Hunsaker Ryan says when a massive coronavirus outbreak happened at the JBS meatpacking plant in Greeley, the Trump administration was of little help. She said she pleaded with Robert Redfield, then the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for help procuring test supplies. 

Ultimately, she said Redfield told her the state could “go buy swabs at a Walgreens.”

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Polis said he avoided speaking out against the Trump administration’s response because he had seen what happened to other governors — like Michigan’s Gretchen Whitmer and Illinois’ J.B. Pritzker — who went that route. They were lambasted on Twitter and lost their influence at the White House.

“This was a president who was notoriously vindictive and personal,” Polis said. “I made every effort to keep up good personal relations with the president and vice president.”

The governor thinks it paid off. He had top officials practically on speed dial.

In May, the governor traveled to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with Trump at the White House. He says it was “important for the relationship,” even if he faced criticism for not challenging baseless remarks the president made while Polis was there about mail-in voting being “subjected to tremendous corruption — cheating.”

President Donald J. Trump makes remarks at a meeting with North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, left, and Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, right, on May 13, 2020, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

“Obviously I had worked in D.C. for 10 years. I had been to the White House on many other occasions,” said Polis, a former congressman. “But this was different. You have to be prepared for rapid non sequiturs and stream of consciousness. And you just sort of go with it and you try to get your points in where you can.”

“It was like having to ruin the party”

No decision Polis has made during the coronavirus pandemic has been more controversial than his move to temporarily shut down the state and then continue imposing restrictions on businesses and people’s movement. 

On one side he’s faced criticism for not acting swiftly and broadly enough. On the other, he has been blasted for being too heavy handed.

“It was like having to ruin the party,” said Polis, who has a libertarian streak. “I think people should have more freedom and choice, in general. And this was the opposite. The failure to do that would have led to overwhelming the hospital system. Innocent people would have died. Not just of COVID, but of other diseases, too.”

Kaufmann, the chief of staff, said March 25, the day Polis announced Colorado’s stay-at-home order was“the worst day of the pandemic” for her. All businesses were ordered to close except those deemed essential, and people were prohibited from leaving their homes unless it was absolutely necessary.

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“It was the right decision,” she said. “We saved a lot of lives. But it also had a big impact on people’s lives.”

Behind the scenes, the governor’s advisers were pushing him toward issuing a stay-at-home order. He initially resisted and said such a mandate was unenforceable.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver on June 11, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

But then the cities and counties across the Denver area locked down, and those in his circle were pressing him to act. It became clear that it wasn’t going to be enough for him simply to ask Coloradans to be careful. 

“I think his staff was telling him ‘shut down the state.’ Even his political people,” said Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, a Boulder Democrat and Polis ally. “He was like, ‘That is not how I thought I would govern.’ He didn’t want to be a heavy-handed governor in that way. He doesn’t like mandates. He likes incentives. He likes using the market to get to goals. He takes a lot of heat for that approach from Democrats.”

Later, when Polis hedged on issuing a statewide mask mandate, he faced more internal pressure. State Rep. Kyle Mullica, a Northglenn Democrat and emergency room nurse who has cared for coronavirus patients, wrote an opinion piece urging the governor to take “proactive leadership.”

“It was something that the data was showing that was saving lives,” Mullica said recently. “I know that we have to weigh a lot of things, specifically around the economy and business and whatnot. But I think my key thing was we can figure out how to come back from economic troubles. You don’t come back from death.”

If Polis sometimes struggled to find support from his own advisers and party, he almost uniformly never found it among Republicans. 

“I think I would give him, maybe, a D-minus,” Rep. Patrick Neville, a Castle Rock Republican and one of Polis’ most vocal critics, said when asked to grade the governor’s response. “But that’s just because I’m grading on a curve and comparing him to guys like (New York Gov. Andrew) Cuomo and (California Gov. Gavin) Newsom.”

Neville said he thinks Polis has been inconsistent in his vaccine distribution plan, public health restrictions and mask mandate. Maybe he battled his own allies at times, “but that doesn’t make him the kind of maverick governor that he tries to make himself out to be,” Neville said. 

A driver in a vintage Corvette, flying several U.S. flags upside down, gives the thumbs up to couple dozen Western Slope residents gathered at the intersection of Main Street and Townsend Avenue in downtown Montrose on April 18, 2020, to protest the ongoing state-mandated closures in effect due to COVID-19. Flying the the flag upside down is a signal of extreme distress or danger to life and property. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Critics point to Colorado’s unemployment rate being 8.4% in December, ranking 48th out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, as being proof that Polis did not properly balance the economy with the pandemic. 

(Colorado’s per-capita case and death rates, conversely, are among the nation’s lowest. States with fewer public health restrictions have not fared as well with the disease.)

Polis has exercised his emergency powers to issue hundreds of executive orders since the pandemic began, and Republicans at the statehouse have introduced a slate of measures seeking to roll back that authority. They say the bills aren’t a commentary on how Polis has handled the pandemic, but the message they send is crystal clear. 

State Sen. Bob Gardner, a Colorado Springs Republican, hopes there is at least some kind of rethinking of executive authority once coronavirus is over, just like there was after habeas corpus was suspended during the Civil War, Japanese-Americans were interned during World War II and, most recently, government surveillance was expanded following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I think many in Colorado believe the governor has done a good job,” Gardner said. “I think he has done as well as anyone could over some things. I had concerns at the beginning — and I think those concerns have been born out — that we have had almost unbridled executive power over the course of the past year.”

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The governor is reading your tweets

Polis’ aides know that the governor reads criticism of his coronavirus response because he will often send them screenshots of posts with ideas on how to improve messaging and communication. For a while, he would even respond to social media naysayers during news conferences. 

But if you ask the governor what he would have done differently looking back on the past year, he answers reluctantly.

“If I knew what I know today, I’m sure I could have made different decisions every step of the way,” he said. “You make the best decision you can. With what you later know, could you have made a better one? Yeah. But you didn’t know it and nobody could have known it.”

But some worry that by not being willing to take a hard look at what could have been done better, the governor is doing a disservice to Colorado’s ongoing COVID-19 response. 

“We’re kind of at this point now a year later where we’ve got some residual inertia still driving some decisions that were made months and months ago forward,” said Lundeen, the Republican state senator. “I think it is time to continue to develop and not let the policy choices just be driven by inertia. Let’s pause and think and evaluate.”

And if the governor is unwilling to rethink his decision making over the past 12 months, business interests, the restaurant industry, local public health officials and other local elected leaders have been and are still willing to criticize him. 

They’ve complained that his restrictions haven’t been based in science, that his communication has been poor and that he’s sometimes forced cities and counties to go it on their own and deal with the political consequences of trying to limit the disease’s spread. 

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said Colorado is “very fortunate” to have Polis as its governor through COVID-19, but that he would have preferred that the state went first on issuing public health orders on lockdowns and mask mandates. 

“Do we always agree? Absolutely not. Have we advised him at times to be more communicative with local elected officials? Yes, we have,” Hancock said in an interview with The Sun. “I’ve personally had the conversation with the governor.”

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at the governor’s mansion in downtown Denver on Aug. 20, 2020. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Still, despite the blowback he’s received, Coloradans’ views of his job performance related to the pandemic have remained fairly consistent. A recent poll of registered voters showed that 56% approved of Polis’ handling of the pandemic, while 37% disapproved and 7% said they had no opinion or didn’t know.

“The mid-50s is where we’ve had Jared Polis’ job approval for handling the coronavirus — it’s been very consistent for over a year,” said David Flaherty, whose Magellan Strategies conducted the survey. “It’s been mid- to upper-50s.”

There have also been lawsuits accusing Polis of wielding his executive authority illegally. But only a few of the governor’s executive orders have been rejected by the courts.

The governor’s allies think Polis deserves some slack for trying to manage a once-in-a-century pandemic. 

“Literally everybody was in his ear about what they think should be done differently,” said Fenberg, the Senate majority leader. “And it’s not like there was a plan on the shelf where you just do the plan. Everything was changing and shifting every day.”

When coronavirus became really personal

When Polis and his partner, Marlon Reis, first tested positive for COVID-19 in late November, they had few symptoms. After several days, Reis’ condition worsened as the governor’s health improved. 

Reis used a device to measure his oxygen saturation on Dec. 6 and found it had fallen to 85%, so low that he was at risk of needing to be intubated. Normal is 95% or higher. 

“Our doctor said, ‘You should go to the hospital,’” Polis said. 

The governor normally is driven everywhere by his Colorado State Patrol security detail. But, in the interest of preventing them from being exposed to the virus, he drove Reis to the hospital himself.  “It was the first time I’ve driven in a year,” Polis said. 

The couple took their young daughter with them, but left their 9-year-old son at home alone for the first time. 

Reis was released from University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora after two days and after receiving dexamethasone, a steroid, and remdesivir, an experimental antiviral drug. He had a lingering cough for a while, but otherwise has recovered. 

Marlon Reis rubs the back of his partner and newly inaugurated Gov. Jared Polis during his inauguration ceremony at the Colorado Capitol on Jan. 8, 2019. (Pool photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post)

The governor actually proposed to Reis, his partner of 17 years, in the chaotic moments just before the couple left home for the hospital. Reis said yes. “It was the absolute perfect time,” Reis said. “I said to him, ‘I couldn’t breathe before. Now I really can’t breathe.’ ”

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Polis says those few days Reis was in the hospital were his worst of the pandemic so far. 

“I think for anybody who’s got COVID, especially if they had a bad case of it or had to be hospitalized or one of their loved ones did, that’s got to be the lowest moment of the last year,” he said. “It was obviously very challenging not knowing about Marlon’s health. Just having to take care of the kids for a couple of days while I was juggling all of these Zoom sessions and phone calls.”

People close to the governor say he can be understated about the emotional effects of the pandemic on him. It’s been hard for him and his family to get away from the crisis. Weekend lunches with the kids, for instance, are interrupted by vaccine allocation questions.

Reis remembers one time during a particularly rough week, when Polis came home while he was watching the news on television. “I asked him to join me,” Reis said. “He actually told me to turn the news off, ‘I don’t need to hear more about it.’ ”

Reis also said he and the couple’s children have been confronted by members of the public who are angry about Polis’ response. “Tell the governor to open JBS up!” Reis remembers one person yelling at him. 

Gov. Jared Polis at a coronavirus vaccine event in Henderson on Feb. 26, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Hancock, who is likely the closest in terms of Colorado politicians feeling the pressure around COVID-19, gets it. He says the pandemic has been the most challenging event of his career. He initially anticipated it would last only about six months.

“It begins to wear on you emotionally and mentally,” Hancock said. “You see it on your family. You see it on those around you who you are working with every day.”

(Hancock was the subject of sharp, national criticism after he flew to Mississippi around the Thanksgiving holiday despite asking Denverites to stay at home.)

And Polis had to contend with more than just the pandemic over the past year. 

“It is hard to run a state on any given, good day, let alone in the middle of a pandemic, let alone a pandemic with civil unrest, fires and a really tumultuous national election that also presented its own safety issues,” Kaufmann said. “That’s all in addition to all the things that happen with running a workforce of over 30,000 people, with services that directly impact every Coloradan. The enormity of the challenges of the last year is hard to encapsulate.”

“A lot of days, I thank God that he’s in charge”

The governor pulled out a calculator and began tapping away. Fourteen million, five hundred thousand coronavirus doses times 1.69%, the share of the U.S. population that’s made up of Coloradans. 

The Centennial State should have been allocated more doses for this week than it was set to receive, his calculations showed. “That’s a 20,000 gap,” he said on a Zoom call with his advisers. 

Someone in the meeting joked that Polis could send the state’s airplane to pick up the vials himself. He had, after all, suggested doing so during a recent winter storm that delayed shipments

The governor can be demanding, his staff says, but in a way that they appreciate. He wants answers, not more questions. Emotional pleas don’t work. Aides must come with data if they are trying to make a point. 

“To go into an occupation like this you have to be pretty calm,” said the governor, who had to pump the brakes on some of his big policy goals because of the pandemic. 

Gov. Jared Polis speaks to reporters at a vaccine event in Henderson on Feb. 26, 2021. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

When Colorado moved from its stay-at-home phase to the safer-at-home phase in April 2020, many in Polis’ inner circle were worried that it was too soon. Many other states were still shut down, and it was unclear if COVID-19 could be kept at bay.  

“He was ready to go to safer-at-home before the rest of us were,” said Stan Hilkey, whom Polis appointed to be Colorado’s public safety chief. “I do remember there was a little bit of an ‘oh my gosh, we’re going to safer-at-home too soon.’ But that worked out great.”

Cases and hospitalizations didn’t truly spike again until the late fall and early winter when the rest of the country also saw an increase. Colorado’s shutdown was among the nation’s shortest.

“A lot of days I thank God that he’s in charge because he really has pushed us to break old paradigms and push norms and meet the moment of whatever it is we’re dealing with,” said Kaufmann, who has one of the governor’s trademark tennis shoes encased in a glass display in her Capitol office. 

The shoes are just one symbol of the governor’s quirky style and nerdy humor. So are his Star Trek and other science fiction references.

As he signed off from a meeting with his advisers last week, Polis referenced the 1960s Batman TV show, bringing levity to the fact that their pandemic work would continue, just as it has every day for the past 365-plus days 

“See you guys tomorrow,” he said. “Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel.”

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