Coronavirus in Colorado
People all across the state are adjusting to life during the coronavirus pandemic, working from home, learning online, and making fewer trips outside of the house. Perhaps more shocking than the announcements from public leaders of measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus is the pace at which many aspects of everyday life have ground to a halt. As of today, in Colorado there are 277 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 4 deaths from the virus, and roughly 3,000 tests have been administered. The Department of Public Health and Environment’s website provides up to date information about the outbreak in Colorado. Over the weekend, Mayor Hancock ordered that all Denver restaurants, bars, and other food establishments be closed to in-person dining. Governor Polis then closed the rest of the state’s restaurants, bars, coffee shops and other food establishments in the state to in-person dining until at least April 30. Restaurants have switched to providing only take out or delivery meals since the announcement. In the same public health order, gyms, theaters, and casinos were also ordered to shut their doors to the public and the order was later extended to include hair and nail salons, spas and tattoo and massage parlors. Summit County, one of the mountain communities particularly hard hit, has gone a step further by closing all hotels, motels, and short-term rentals. On Saturday, Vail Resorts announced they would be closing their ski resorts for a week and then Governor Polis announced closure of all ski resorts—the closure later extended to April 6, effectively ending Colorado’s ski season for the vast majority of resorts.
On Tuesday, Governor Polis signed HB20-1359, Ballot Access Modifications Public Health Concerns, allowing for political party assemblies and conventions to allow for remote participation in order to prevent these large gatherings of people while allowing the election process to continue. Governor Polis also signed SB20-091, which will increase the salaries of National Guard members in Colorado. When the legislature passed the bill, Colorado was not yet under a state of emergency. The pay increase won’t take effect for 90 days. When the legislature returns, the body may consider altering the effective date to speed up the pay increase for National Guard members now called to action to address the pandemic.
On Wednesday, Governor Polis closed all public and private schools until April 17. Schools may remain closed for the remainder of the school year. Where possible, students will transition to online and remote learning, but issues of access and equity are a concern. In addition, the spring student achievement state tests have been cancelled. Some childcare and early childhood education centers have remained open and non-profits and early childhood providers are working with the state to implement a plan for providing needed child care for hospital and health care workers. Around Colorado, grocery stores, hospitals, pharmacies, gas stations remain open. The Department of Public Health and Environment has pressed organizers to cancel or postpone all events larger than 10 people, in line with the most recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The statewide closures of restaurants, bars, clubs, ski areas, music venues, hair salons, tattoo shops, and many other establishments have left thousands of Coloradans without work. State and local governments have taken measures to provide relief and assistance for workers, communities, and industries affected by the coronavirus outbreak. There has been a surge in unemployment insurance claims and the system has been updated to handle the increase in claims. Over 30,000 claims for unemployment insurance have been submitted in the last week. For context, on March 9th, the state was only processing 400 claims for unemployment. Governor Polis announced a special enrollment period for health insurance on the individual exchange. Thousands of individuals who previously had health insurance through their employer now find themselves without a job and without health insurance coverage. The Governor also temporarily expanded telemedicine policy to broaden the definition of telemedicine services to include telephone only and live chat modalities, authorize Federally Qualified Health Centers, Rural Health Clinics, and Indian Health Services to bill encounters for telemedicine visits, and adds specified physical therapy, occupational therapy, home health, hospice, and pediatric behavioral health therapy services to list of eligible interactive audiovisual telemedicine services. Elective and non-essential surgeries have been suspended in order to ensure that necessary equipment and staffing resources are available in the health care sector to address an expected surge in utilization amongst hospital beds.
On Thursday, Colorado secured federal funds from the Small Business Administration. The SBA Economic Injury Disaster Loans can provide up to $2 million in assistance to help businesses pay debt, payroll, and other bills impacted by the outbreak. Denver announced it would provide $4 million in relief for small businesses affected by COVID-19, including grants up to $7,500 for struggling small businesses who may have had to temporarily close because of the outbreak and $1,000 grants to artists who have lost income from canceled events.
On Friday, state and federal deadlines for filing income taxes for individuals and businesses were pushed back to July 15th. Governor Polis asked landlords, debt collectors, banks and financial institutions, and utilities to help everyday Coloradans make it through these difficult times. During a press conference, he asked: landlords to not impose late fees on tenants until April 30; banks to allow 90 day deferments on payments for consumer loans and to halt foreclosures; local governments to refrain from using police to enforce evictions that aren’t affecting public safety; and utilities to not shut off services to customers who haven’t paid their bill. On Wednesday, the Attorney General also released a press release calling on loan servicers, creditors, and debt collectors to refrain from mandatory debt collection efforts from those who are unable to pay because of their financial circumstance. A newly created economic advisory council, chaired by former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, will advise Governor Polis on future efforts to stem the economic repercussions from the pandemic.
Neighbors, businesses, and individuals are stepping up to support the community. Governor Polis’s administration set up Help Colorado Now to coordinate volunteer and donation efforts. People can sign up to volunteer to help people living alone with groceries and daily tasks, or to donate vital resources such as cleaning supplies or blood. The Colorado COVID Relief Fund has raised nearly $3 million to support the recovery of communities affected by the outbreak.
Update on the Legislative Recess
On Friday, Governor Polis signed 35 bills into law, including SB20-006 to amend the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative, SB20-017 Transportation Public Private Partnership Reporting, and HB20-1179 the Rule Review Bill. One legislator, Representative Dafna Michaelson Jenet, has tested positive for COVID-19. She will spend two weeks in isolation as recommended. On Monday, the Joint Budget Committee received the March Revenue Forecast, which will be used to set the next year’s state budget. As expected, the coronavirus outbreak and related business closures weighed heavily on revenue projections. The state’s General Fund receives revenue primarily from corporate and individual income taxes as well as sales and use taxes. Thousands of Coloradans out of work means that many people are no longer paying income taxes and restrictions on business operations means consumers are no longer spending on a variety of goods that would have normally generated sales tax revenue. Another factor contributing to lower revenue is the price of oil, which dropped over 30% in one week after OPEC flooded the market that was already seeing a decrease in demand due to fewer people traveling due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Legislative Council Staff revised their General Fund revenue projections for FY2020-21 downward $749.9 million, leaving the legislature with just $27.3 million above last year’s General Fund budget in additional monies. Nearly all cash funds including the Highway Users Tax Fund, limited gaming revenue, severance tax revenue are expected to decrease, except for revenue from marijuana taxes which is forecast to increase over the next few years. The picture for K-12 funding could not have looked more different from the previous forecast in December. In December it appeared that due to lower student enrollment and a higher amount of local property taxes, that there was an option to decrease the amount of General Fund to pay for the state’s share of K-12 funding. Now the State Education Fund is projected to receive $28.4 million less than previously anticipated, federal mineral lease revenues are also seeing a dip, and student counts for at risk students came in higher—all increasing the state’s share owed for K-12 funding.
While the legislature is set to return on March 30, the outbreak is showing no signs of slowing down and there is the potential that the chambers will gavel in only to extend the recess. The state capitol, initially only closed Monday through Wednesday this week to the public, is now closed to the public indefinitely. The Joint Budget Committee, initially set to meet on March 23rd, will now meet next on March 30th as work continues behind the scenes to cobble together options to address the now-projected budget shortfall.
Meanwhile, the Colorado Supreme Court has agreed to hear arguments on the interrogatory submitted last week by the General Assembly. The legislature sought clarity on how the 2-week recess will impact the scheduled date for final adjournment, May 6, 2020. The constitution states that the legislative session may last no more than 120 days, but a legislative rule allows the legislature to take a break in a declared state of emergency. Does the rule allow the legislature to hit pause on the 120-day clock, or must the days be counted consecutively? Briefs are due March 24th and then the Supreme Court would hear arguments within a week. Depending on how long the outbreak delays legislative work, a special session could be called by the Governor or by the General Assembly. Whenever the legislature does return, the entire tenor, priorities, and focus of the session will have pivoted. Legislators will need to prioritize passing a balanced budget, the School Finance Act, and legislation that may allow greater access to federal funds.