As the pandemic nears its one year mark, Gov. Jared Polis has issued more than 260 executive orders aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19. He says he can’t wait until they all expire.
“You know each one is difficult, and thoughtful and predicated by science,” he said in an interview with Rocky Mountain Community Radio.
But as the crisis has dragged on, the governor and his administration have been defending themselves against a steady stream of lawsuits coming from churches, businesses and others questioning everything from mask mandates to capacity restrictions.
Judges have mostly sided with Polis on the business restrictions – but not on limiting church attendance.
“I’m doing my best to provide the stable, thoughtful leadership that the state needs, informed by science, to be able to get through this with our lives, and our economy intact,” he said.
Still, not everyone is happy with his approach.
Business owners in Steamboat Springs have been gathering downtown each weekend this month to protest his coronavirus restrictions, especially on small businesses. They chant while waving signs and American flags.
“We’re not making enough money to pay our bills. Our restaurants and shops are about to fail,” Steamboat restaurant owner David Eliason said at one of the protests, which were organized by a group called Save Routt County.
Eliason owns three restaurants and employs dozens of workers.
His calls to “open up” Routt County did not go unanswered. The state health department recently allowed restaurants to reopen indoor dining in Routt at 25 percent capacity.
Gov. Polis says the capacity restrictions have been “terrible” but necessary to save lives. He hopes allowing ski country to have limited indoor dining helps this winter.
“I don’t know if it’s enough capacity for them to make it through or not. I hope so,” he said. “That’s why we convened a special session of the legislature. Republicans and Democrats providing direct tax relief to restaurants”
But Republicans also used the special session right after Thanksgiving to air their grievances. They sponsored several bills aiming to strip his power, and that of future governors.
“We as legislators represent the people. Not the executive branch. Not the judicial,” Rep. Richard Holtorf, R-Akron, said.
Holtorf was speaking in favor of the so-called Emergency Powers Checks and Balances Act. It would have forced Polis to get the legislature’s approval for some executive orders.
But the Democrats who are in power at the statehouse – including Rep. Dafna Michaelson Janet – quickly shot down the bills.
“Our governor is doing his best to keep this state afloat during these very difficult times,” she said.
Polis said with lawmakers only meeting four months out of each year, it’s best for the governor to lead the response to the pandemic.
"It’s a good, thoughtful discussion in a democracy,” he said in response to attempts from Republicans to limit his power. “I mean, if you’re going to go that route, you need to have a full-time legislature. There’s no question our legislature is a part-time legislature. Many folks don’t know that they have other jobs.”
Meanwhile, these types of power struggles are playing out all across the country. So far, Colorado has been spared from more heated clashes like Michigan, where several men were charged in a plot to kidnap their governor.
“A lot of governors have commented that when they were sworn in, they never anticipated having to take the kinds of measures taken over the last few months,” said James Nash, a spokesman for the National Governor’s Association. “And in many cases, they’ve done so with heavy hearts. No one wants to shut down a large segment of the economy. But at the same time, no one wants to lose thousands of their people”
Almost two years into his term, Gov. Polis says he never imagined he would be facing a crisis of this magnitude, but he’s hopeful the arrival of the vaccine will help the state get back to normalcy. He’s urging Coloradans to continue wearing masks and social distancing until the vaccine distributions are complete in the coming months.
“We want all of our kids back in school. We want restaurants open. And the way to do that is to be careful in our own lives,” he said.