In Colorado 1,734 people have tested positive for COVID-19, over 239 people have been hospitalized, and 31 people have died due to the virus, it is present in 42 counties, 11,676 people have been tested, and there have been 9 outbreaks at residential and non-hospital health care facilities.
In the past two weeks public officials ordered the closure of many parts of public life, culminating this week with a growing number of local Stay at Home orders until Governor Polis issued a statewide Stay at Home order on Wednesday effective through April 11. The next day Governor Polis and CDPHE released an updated Stay at Home Order with more details on prohibitions and what is allowed under the order, and many local jurisdictions updated their own public health orders to conform with the state’s order. Local jurisdiction orders may be more strict than the state law—for example some jurisdictions have closed hotels, motels, and short term rentals—but the state order sets the minimum restrictions.
Although the order is currently scheduled to expire at midnight on April 11, the Governor was clear that the order could be extended if the pandemic hasn’t subsided. Coloradans are ordered to stay at home as much as possible and may leave their homes to conduct essential activities including to shop for groceries; seek health care and purchase medication; engage in outdoor activity; go to a workplace that has been deemed “critical”; or care for someone in need who does not live in the same home. The order allows “critical businesses” to operate, and these are generally the types of industries related to the health and safety of the state’s citizens. Essential government functions will also continue under the Stay at Home order. On Friday, in a breakdown of bipartisan support of the work done to slow the COVID outbreak, Colorado Senate Republicans sent a letter to Governor Polis expressing disappointment in a lack of communication by Governor Polis to the caucus before issuing the statewide stay at home order. The letter also called for more publicly releasing more accurate and complete data to back up the necessity for the statewide order. The letter also hinted that a statewide mandate for citizens to stay at home did not account for some areas of the state where fewer citizens have tested positive, citing Mesa County where there are six COVID-19 cases. The letter ends with a commitment to work with the Governor on data-driven solutions through the crisis and is signed by all Senate Republicans except Senator Priola and Senator Tate.
The coronavirus has taken a toll not only on the health of many in this country, but also on state and local government budgets, many citizen’s livelihoods and small businesses. This morning the U.S. Congress sent a $2 trillion economic stimulus package to the President’s desk and this afternoon President Trump signed the measure. The measure will provide additional funds to increase unemployment insurance, supply the health care system, provide loans for small businesses, provide direct cash payments to many Americans, and financial assistance to state and local governments and native tribes. The federal dollars that will come to Colorado are an essential factor for the Joint Budget Committee and legislature to consider as they seek to shore up the state’s budget and prepare for long term implications.
Late this afternoon, Governor Polis held a press conference providing additional guidance and clarification on the statewide stay at home order and sharing several potential scenarios for the spread of COVID-19 in Colorado. Governor Polis announced goals to add an additional 1,000 ICU beds by May, and 5,000 additional beds by the summer. He clarified that participation in essential government functions, including elections, is still allowed, parents may transport children in cases of shared custody, and stressed that even businesses deemed “critical” and allowed to remain open have to comply with social distancing and allow workers to work from home as much as possible. Governor Polis encouraged citizens who do not believe their employer is taking adequate steps to allow for work from home and social distancing to contact the State Attorney General and their local public health department, and indicated that such claims would be investigated. He spent most of the press conference outlining several potential outcomes of projected deaths, ICU beds needed, and health care capacity depending on how contagious COVID is, social environmental parameters, and compliance with social distancing measures. He insisted that the social distancing measures taken in the past few weeks—closing bars and restaurants, closing schools, prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more, mandating in person workforce reductions, and the statewide stay at home order—will reduce the number of deaths in Colorado. Data gathered from pings on cell phones and traffic data are being used to estimate the effects of the social distancing measures. The effects of the first measures taken to close bars and restaurants is just starting to show up in the data and the full effects of the stay at home order will be seen by hospital admit data around April 7. The two scenarios presented assumed a higher measure of contagiousness and a lower level. For each scenario, Governor Polis outlined the estimated number of deaths and ICU beds needed with no social distancing measures in place, with a 40% reduction in social contact, a 50% reduction, and a 60% reduction. The difference between the worst case scenario and the best case scenario presented was tens of thousands of Colorado lives lost. Governor Polis ended the statement saying that strict measures now give time to build health care capacity through ICU beds and ventilators, lower the social and environmental factors that contribute to how contagious COVID-19 is, and help achieve a faster return to normalcy.
The legislature is set to meet on Monday, March 30. The Executive Committee will meet to approve a resolution to extend the legislative session, and then the House and Senate will debate and pass it, and then immediately adjourn. A quorum must be present, so a minimum of 33 Representatives and 18 Senators will be in attendance. The status of the last half of the legislative session remains up in the air. The Colorado Supreme Court received briefs on the interrogatory submitted by the General Assembly arguing either that the legislative body may meet only for 120 consecutive days or that the legislative calendar can be paused during a public health emergency. The General Assembly Democrats submitted a brief arguing that the legislature is in an unprecedented situation with the health and safety of the public at risk due to a global pandemic. They cite Joint Rule 44 that states the legislative session may consist of 120 “separate working calendar days.” General Assembly Republicans also submitted a brief, arguing that Join Rule 44 violates provisions in the Colorado Constitution around the 120 calendar days of the legislative session. If the General Assembly is allowed to continue with session, all of the pending bills would see hearings and action. The Governor or the General Assembly may call a special session if the pandemic pushes into May and the Supreme Court decides that the 2020 session must end on May 6. The General Assembly can call a special session, without the approval of the Governor, by a two thirds vote from legislators on the scope of the special session. This would require a bipartisan vote on what issues the legislature would take up during the special session. Regardless of the outcome of the Supreme Court’s decision in the interrogatory, the legislature will need to reconvene at some point in 2020 to, at a minimum, pass a state budget and school finance act, and approve or extend a number of activities that would other sunset (be discontinued) this year.
Legislation Signed This Week
Though the legislature is in recess, Governor Polis only had 10 days to act on legislation once it arrives on his desk, so we saw quite a number of bills become law this week when the Governor signed them. Colorado became the 22nd state to abolish the death penalty when the Governor signed the bill in to law this week. Following his signature of SB20-100, Governor Polis commuted the sentences of the three men on death row in Colorado to life without parole. Given the uncertainty of pending legislation when the General Assembly reconvenes, and the shift to focus among all levels of government to responding to COVID-19, the passage of the death penalty repeal may be one of the biggest hallmarks for the 2020 legislative session. In addition, Governor Polis signed SB20-167 into law, allowing automobile manufacturers to sell electric vehicles directly to consumers, rather than going through the franchise model. Also signed on Monday, HB20-1093, will allow county governments to issue business licenses for short term rentals. Counties, which have been regulating short term rentals through the land use code, pushed for this legislation. Counties argued that licensing authority for short term rentals will allow for a faster response to noise, trash, and other complaints.
November Ballot Measures
The Title Board has approved several titles for a tobacco tax increase, voter approval of enterprises, and a paid family and medical leave program. Six measures that would use revenues from increased taxes on tobacco products and a new tax on nicotine products to provide preschool to more Colorado children. The initiatives #287-292 differ in the tax rates and would generate between $318 million and $391 million annually. With the legislature in a recess, the path for a paid family and medical leave program is looking surer through the ballot than through the legislature this year. The Title Board approved initiative #283 Paid Family and Medical Leave. This initiative would set up a FAMLI program with up to 12 weeks of paid leave, funded through premiums of 0.9% to 1.2% of wages. Two other FAMLI ballot proposals are awaiting a Colorado Supreme Court decision and Initiative #238 could face a similar challenge. Three initiatives, #273-275 to require voter approval to create an enterprise moved forward as well. These initiatives had their titles approved earlier in the month, but one opposed to the initiatives filed for a re-hearing. An enterprise is often described as a government run business. If the enterprise receives less than 10% of its funding from the state, the revenue the enterprise collects through fees does not count towards the state’s revenue limits. The initiatives seek to require voters approve the creation of some enterprises, if their estimated fee revenue would exceed $50 million in its first 5 years. From here, the proponents of the ballot initiatives will narrow down their submitted ballot titles to one, seek approval of a petition form from the Secretary of State, and begin to gather signatures. Campaigns will have until April 3 to gather at least 124, 632 valid signatures—5 percent of the total votes cast in the last general election.