Gov. Jared Polis did a grave disservice Friday to the fight against the pandemic and those most exhausted by the endless waves of COVID-19 in the state, healthcare and frontline workers.
“The emergency is over,” Polis told Colorado Public Radio’s Ryan Warner during a monthly radio interview, explaining why, as deaths continue to mount and hospitals overflow, he will not issue mask or vaccine mandates.
To be accurate, the pandemic emergency in Colorado and across the nation is not over. It is far from over.
As Polis spoke, hospitals across the state struggle with a flood of critically ill COVID-19 patients, many of whom will die. On Friday, there were 1,329 patients in hospitals across the state struggling with COVID-19.
Hospitals in Colorado struggle against health worker burnout and a shortage of beds for patients suffering from other maladies.
Polis has stumbled on issuing mask mandates since the pandemic began. Last year, he wavered over a statewide mask mandate weeks after other states saw the scientific wisdom and need for them to curb the rate of infection and “flatten the curve,” a national mantra.
The meme was used to help Americans understand that the spread of the coronavirus was unstoppable, but distancing, closures and masks could effectively slow the rate of infection, preventing hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with sick and dying patients — like they are becoming now.
When push-back came after Polis enforced a statewide mask mandate — mostly from Republican officials ignoring sound science and facts or outright pushing fraudulent claims to undermine the mask mandate — Polis stood his ground, pointing to irrefutable data about masks slowing the spread of the coronavirus.
Since about the time school started in August — and it became apparent that no amount of cajoling, bribery or threats would get a sizable number of Colorado residents to roll up their sleeves for a shot that could relatively easily end the worst of the pandemic — Polis steadfastly declined, then refused to issue a statewide mask mandate, even as cases soared and hospitals became overwhelmed.
For a governor as pragmatic as Polis, the move has been baffling.
It is indisputable that mask mandates reduce the amount of airborne virus shared among people inside stores, restaurants, bathrooms and more.
Less virus means fewer infections. Fewer infections means fewer sickened people. Fewer sickened people means fewer people hospitalized, placed on ventilators and doomed to struggle for breath as they die.
The most baffling part of this is how simple, cheap, effective and unimposing wearing a mask in public is.
Why fight something this innocuous and effective? The response from Polis was alarming.
“Public health [officials] don’t get to tell people what to wear; that’s just not their job,” Polis told Warner as the radio host pressed Polis for details about his mask mandate objection.
Those are the same inflammatory and politicized talking points lobbed regularly from propaganda sources like Fox News, GOP Congressperson Lauren Boebert and the social-media circus of anti-science, disinformation felons.
Masks are not attire. They are medical devices proven to slow the spread of a pandemic that has ended the lives of more than 800,000 Americans and sickened millions more.
Polis’ joining the chorus of Republican obfuscators and conspiracy theorists undermines officials across the state, including in Arapahoe, Adams, Denver, Jefferson and Boulder counties. Officials there stepped around Polis and mustered the temerity to impose a mask mandate, because it’s desperately needed.
Polis’ office later clarified, explaining that Polis referred only to state, not local officials. Regardless which level of government requires masks in a pandemic, it has nothing to do with fashion or freedom.
We absolutely agree with Polis that the short-term and long-term key to mitigating and, possibly, ending the coronavirus pandemic, lies in mass vaccination.
But almost a year after vaccines have been introduced, and the state has made every effort possible to provide and persuade Colorado residents to take the shot, herds of people, either too stubborn or befuddled, have refused and will continue.
We also agree with Polis that those refusing vaccination are doomed to infection and seriously prone to becoming ill, possibly for the rest of their lives and even dying from COVID-19, “and it’s their own darn fault.”
But frustration with anti-vaxxers can’t overshadow the reality that thousands of Colorado residents, including some who have been vaccinated, continue to become infected, primarily because they are exposed in public places by other infected people, not wearing masks.
Polis needs to take back the Republican, anti-vaxxer allegation that mask mandates are an affront to personal choice and fashion vogue. He needs to walk back his insistence that the medical emergency and urgency to contain the spread of the coronavirus has ended here, or anywhere.
He needs to check with his own experts, who most likely are not advising him to say the emergency is over and mask mandates aren’t the job of health officials.
Polis needs to issue a statewide mask mandate to reduce disease, save lives and defuse the political charge across the state for something that has nothing to do with politics.