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Behind The Scenes Of Pandemic Governing: Colorado's Polis On Tests Of Leadership

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis opens the shipping box containing the state's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Dec. 14, 2020, in east Denver.
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis opens the shipping box containing the state's first shipment of COVID-19 vaccine at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Dec. 14, 2020, in east Denver.

A little more than a year into the pandemic in the U.S. and governors across the country continue to be thrust into the spotlight as they maneuver through vaccine distribution and decisions on opening up their states.

During the public health emergency, governors have used extraordinary powers to shut down businesses and mandate masks and social distancing. No governor ever ran for office "expecting to lead a state through a pandemic," says Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat.

"Somebody has to be governor and I happened to be here at this time, so I'm just going to do my best to make the most informed decisions I can."

Polis, a 45-year-old former congressman and tech entrepreneur, has issued hundreds of executive orders of his own but says he believes that persuasion, more than written policies, may be more important for taming the pandemic.

"The policies matter a bit, and people focus so much on those. Do you tell people they have to wear masks? Do you close down? What capacity do you have at restaurants? But what really matters is, are people wearing masks?"

Like any other state, Colorado has seen its peaks and valleys. At times, it had among the highest death rates in the Intermountain West, but hospitals were never overrun.

The governor has had his share of critics, though. Some local health departments complained they were caught off guard by policies. Then, there were anti-lockdown protests and even a recall effort called "Dethrone Polis" that failed to gather enough signatures for a vote.

An event at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., billed as a "COVID Chaos" protest against emergency public health rules issued by Gov. Jared Polis to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers at the rally derided the governor's actions.
Hart Van Denburg / CPR News
An event at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo., billed as a "COVID Chaos" protest against emergency public health rules issued by Gov. Jared Polis to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers at the rally derided the governor's actions.

Polis has stood in front of TV cameras more frequently than maybe any governor in Colorado's history. All of those broadcast briefings have been a chance to provide facts, cajole, explain, and at times browbeat, the public into doing what he hopes they will do.

Each time he's addressed the state to release new data and implore Coloradans to stay safe, he's known exactly who is his closest observer.

"My mom always watches," Polis says. Susan Polis Schutz, his 76-year-old mother, is no passive viewer. The governor's communications director has gotten used to her instantaneous feedback. "My mom always texts in if there's any problem at all. Like, 'it showed the background too long,' or, 'There was a part you couldn't hear.' "

It's just one way the governor's personal and work lives have blurred over this unprecedented year, an experience familiar to many Americans.

In the many high-level meetings that Colorado Public Radio observed, Polis is detailed and decisive. Early on in the pandemic, when states were scrambling to get respirators, masks and tests, he didn't appear overly emotional or stressed.

"You had every state competing against one another and often the federal government competing against us."

Polis' quick decision-making was hard for some of his senior staff to get used to at first.

"This sort of rapid decision-making, rapid ability to uptake information and make a decision, was certainly uncomfortable for me because I've been a person who wants to be very critically thinking about stuff," says Stan Hilkey, the executive director of Colorado's Department of Public Safety.

Gov. Jared Polis poses for a selfie with health staffers at a mass vaccination clinic at the National Western Center in Denver on Feb. 6.
Hart Van Denburg / CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis poses for a selfie with health staffers at a mass vaccination clinic at the National Western Center in Denver on Feb. 6.

More than half of states are considering bills to limit governors' use of executive powers — giving more say back to state lawmakers. But it's harder for those policies to gain traction in places like Colorado where one party controls the government. Even so, Republicans pushed back against Polis' broad use of executive authority. "People have asked, 'Where is our legislature? Why aren't the legislators doing things?' " says Senate Minority Leader Chris Holbert, a Republican.

For Polis, he says the toughest time personally was when he and his long-time partner, Marlon Reis, both contracted COVID-19. After a week of quarantining with their two young children, he thought they were almost through it. That's when Reis' condition got worse.

"We had these little home oxygenator things they usually get people with COVID. It went down from normally 95, 85, 84. So they said, 'You better come in.' "

Polis says at that point he hadn't driven in about a year because his security officers prefer to drive him. This time, he insisted. "I didn't want to expose our troopers to COVID."

But there was just one thing he wanted to do before taking his partner of 17 years to the hospital. That was, propose.

"I've been thinking about it for a while," Polis says. "I'd ordered the rings with an inscription from Isaiah and had them hidden and ready to go. He was going off to the hospital. I knew he'd probably get better," but he says he didn't want to take any chances.

They're hoping to hold a Jewish wedding in the fall and he says their six-year-old daughter is excited to be a flower girl.

As the pandemic reached the one-year mark, Polis says he is still as busy as before. Rolling out the vaccine has come with enormous logistical challenges for states. On a daily basis, the governor's administration is busy ordering doses, tracking and managing vaccine sites, monitoring new variants of the disease and trying to address persistent inequities over who is getting the vaccine. Despite the difficulties, Polis says it's not a bad place to be.

"Certainly [it's] a more fun thing to contemplate than the dark days of the pandemic and hospital surges and [questions like] 'where are these extra beds going to be and how are we going to fit all the patients?' That's a horrible, horrific thing to consider."

Gov. Jared Polis takes a swing at a piñata representing the COVID-19 virus, during a visit to the Adelante Community Development Clinic at Mile High Flea Market in Henderson, Colo. Feb. 26.
Bente Birkeland / CPR News
Gov. Jared Polis takes a swing at a piñata representing the COVID-19 virus, during a visit to the Adelante Community Development Clinic at Mile High Flea Market in Henderson, Colo. Feb. 26.

Polis does see a few good things coming from this incredibly difficult year. He thinks remote work and telecommuting have led to efficiencies, and families have found new ways to stay connected while apart. He recently attended a cousin's virtual bar mitzvah.

There have been moments of levity, too. On a recent visit to a vaccine clinic near Denver, volunteers presented Polis with a piñata in the unmistakable shape of the coronavirus. Instead of a stick, they handed him a large mock-syringe. In front of the laughing crowd, Polis whacked at the piñata again, and again, trying to break it apart. Eventually, one of his staffers had to pull him away.

Copyright 2021 CPR News. To see more, visit CPR News.