After initially resisting such a sweeping mandate, Gov. Jared Polis on Wednesday ordered the majority of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents to stay home in the state government’s most forceful attempt yet to counter the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The order, which takes effect 6 a.m. Thursday and expires April 11, comes as nearly one in three Americans are now living under some type of stay-at-home order. Leaders nationwide are working to flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed by surges of patients.
“Our generation is being called upon to sacrifice to save the lives of our fellow Coloradans and our fellow Americans,” Polis said during a news conference announcing the order. “And that sacrifice is staying at home. And that is a sacrifice for those who live paycheck-to-paycheck.”
Health officials offered sober warnings of the deepening crisis Wednesday as the death toll from the highly infectious respiratory disease reached 19 in the state, and total known positive cases surpassed 1,000. At least 147 people have been hospitalized — double the figure from Tuesday — and there are nine known outbreaks at residential health care facilities.
Polis said he had hoped to avoid this drastic step, but that the orders and guidance he’s issued to this point simply haven’t been effective enough at keeping people indoors and slowing the virus.
“If we can ease these restrictions sooner (than April 11), no one would be happier than me,” he said. “It’s also possible that it could take longer.”
Despite the “stay-at-home” instruction, people will still be allowed to attend to essential tasks: going to the grocery store, filling prescriptions, doing laundry and picking up take-out food. Taking walks and hikes are still fine, as long as you stay six feet from the nearest person.
All businesses and government functions considered nonessential that had not already shuttered must now close. These include salons, most retail stores, bowling alleys, movie theaters and more.
Essential business allowed to stay open include health care providers, bankers, grocers, child care facilitators and shelter operators.
Liquor stores, marijuana dispensaries and firearm retailers are considered critical businesses in the new order and will remain open. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock initially ordered liquor stores and dispensaries to close under his order earlier this week, but reversed course after hordes of people rushed the stores.
“We’re issuing this stay-at-home order to save lives,” Polis said, adding that thousands could be saved by this measure. “It could be your aunt or uncle, could be your grandparent, could be your own life.”
“This is truly serious”
The governor resisted making such an order for days, even as several elected leaders — including Hancock — pushed him to take the step. As he held off, local officials in counties up and down the Front Range followed Denver’s lead in issuing their own directives on Wednesday, only to be superseded by the state later on in the day.
Polis also acknowledged that there are far more cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in Colorado than what testing has been able to confirm.
Stay at home.
— Jared Polis (@PolisForCO) March 25, 2020
The lack of accurate data, Polis said, can be attributed to a lack of testing, with which the governor seems enormously frustrated. Two weeks ago he said he wanted up to nine drive-up testing sites around the state, and the state has so far only operated one at a time.
“We have been so disappointed by the lack of testing supplies,” Polis said. “This is so frustrating, because the only way we can address this virus” and get back to normal “is what South Korea has done, it’s what Taiwan has done, it’s what we need to do here as soon as possible.”
Polis also spoke of the lack of critical, lifesaving equipment such as ventilators. He previously had said Colorado is 7,000 ventilators shy of what it’ll need at peak capacity, and on Wednesday he issued a call to arms for the private sector to “get creative,” while saying that the state lab — which has tripled its testing capacity — is still not where it needs to be.
At least one local health official said the restrictive orders became necessary because people have not taken this crisis seriously enough.
“This tells the public that this is truly serious, and we truly mean it,” said Dr. Mark Johnson, executive director of Jefferson County Public Health, after Jeffco joined Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder and Douglas counties in issuing their own stay-at-home orders Wednesday morning. “Do not listen to people saying this is like the flu or this is a hoax. This is truly the greatest public health crisis this country has faced since at least 1918.”
The situation is going to get worse before it gets better, Johnson said. The million-dollar question, he said, is whether Colorado and the rest of the country will reach the levels of Spain and Italy, where the most serious consequences of the global outbreak are being felt in grave hospital scenes.
“I have faith we won’t get as bad as Italy and Spain,” Johnson said after a long pause. “But I can’t say that’s based on data. That’s based on heart.”
A growing response
The governor’s order follows a series of measures the Boulder Democrat has taken over the last month as the crisis has worsened in the state.
On March 5, Colorado officials confirmed the state’s first two cases of COVID-19. The positive cases included an older woman from Douglas County who had returned to Colorado from an international cruise, and a man in his 30s who traveled to the state from Italy.
Five days later, Polis declared a state of emergency, which he said would expand testing and help those most at risk avoid exposure to the virus.
As he mourned the first coronavirus-related death in the state on March 13, Polis urged the cancellation of any events bringing together more than 250 people as touring companies from around the world canceled shows en masse.
The next day, he ordered all downhill ski resorts to close for at least a week, with the majority of resorts now saying they won’t reopen this season.
On March 16, as the number of positive cases reached 160 statewide, the governor ordered the closure of all bars and restaurants for dine-in service, and the shuttering of all movie theaters, casinos and gyms for at least a month.
Two days later, as school districts around the state were independently shutting down classroom learning, Polis closed schools statewide for at least the next month, while indicating it’s “increasingly unlikely” that students will return to their buildings before the end of the school year.
The same day, the governor also adopted guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people, including sporting events, concerts, parades, fairs, church gatherings and more.
And on March 19, Polis ordered the suspension of all “nonessential” surgeries and medical procedures in Colorado in order to free up equipment, including ventilators and personal protection items for staff. He also extended the closure of bars, restaurants and large gathering places to April 30.
With small businesses and service industry workers across the state reeling from layoffs, cuts and closures, Polis on Friday announced a series of orders to give more financial support to those trying to keep the lights on make rent payments on time.