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In some ways, it’s hard to believe that it has been just over two years since COVID-19 entered our lives. (Wasn’t it just yesterday that we were all stuck on awkward Zoom happy hours?) At the same time, our pandemic-tinged existence features markers of just how much has changed since Colorado went into an initial lockdown on March 25, 2020. People are dealing with mental health fallout from isolation; beloved local institutions have been forced to shutter; and many of the spaces around us have completely transformed (see: offices and retail space). We also had a reckoning with racial justice and more people than every before took to the outdoors to enjoy Colorado’s beautiful spaces.
With the two-year anniversary of the insidious particle’s arrival in the Centennial State upon us, and certain aspects of life regaining some sense of normalcy (we’ve still got our eyes on you BA.2 Omicron subvariant), we asked prominent members of the community to reflect on the past two years. Their observations consider where we’ve been, as well as where we go from here.
(Read more: 9 Lessons From Our Bizzare Pandemic Year)
Michael Hancock, Denver Mayor
“I clearly remember the moment we made a determination to shut the city down. We’d literally just held a meeting where we talked about encouraging people to continue going to restaurants, because we were getting signals that they were in trouble. The public health director walked in 10 minutes later and said ‘Mayor, this is more dire than we imagined. Hospitals are starting to be overrun.’ So we reconvened and shut the city down, told everyone to go home and protect their families. It was evolving that quickly. The people of Denver were phenomenal. They went home and took very seriously what we recommended. One death is too many, but we didn’t have the number of deaths a city our size might have had.
Now, we have an economic impact that we have to recover from. We’ve got to deal with the perception that downtown is dead. There will be a new normal for what downtown looks like. I think we will have more residential, more people living downtown in what were once commercial buildings. But it’s still vibrant. There are other challenges. The pandemic and the social unrest highlighted the inequity we still have to address. I think that the city has learned a lot about itself in terms of resiliency, that there’s nothing we can’t accomplish when we work together. And I think we are proud of the power of strength and togetherness that we demonstrate during doing all of this.”
Dr. Phil Stahel, chief medical officer at the Medical Center of Aurora
“The day that I started [at the Medical Center of Aurora], the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said that morning, on February 17, that COVID will not be a problem for the United States. Two weeks later, we were diving right in. As I huddled with our team on a daily basis—and the team was exhausted and disillusioned and saw the misery and the suffering of those who were sick, and of the family and loved ones who couldn’t be with them—my guidance was, “Let’s look at it like a marathon. We know there will be an end. We don’t know when. But the one thing we know for certain is this will come to an end.”
If you look back from a 10,000-foot-view vantage point, we just survived the deadliest pandemic humankind has ever been exposed to, after two years. And possibly the most important human virtue of all is perseverance—to just keep going. This is something we will talk about to future generations to come. And we saved so many more lives than you could even easily quantify. As healers and health care providers, what an amazing opportunity to make a difference. Once in a lifetime.”
Alex Marrero, Denver Public Schools superintendent
“I was the interim superintendent of the New Rochelle school district when someone in the community came down with the first case in New York. When I arrived in Denver [in July 2020], I didn’t have to endure that experience of it being intense and unknown again. I inherited a team who had been managing the COVID response incredibly well. In August , our students returned to the classroom in-person, which was, at that time, a major feat. Being in-person was, to me, the ultimate necessity. Students needed to engage and have that camaraderie, have that learning experience sitting down crisscross applesauce on the colorful rug to learn how to read. It was incredible to welcome students in person. I really cherish those memories. They were instrumental in energizing me to make sure we followed the health guidance but stayed the course. Making sure students have an in-person learning experience is going to be important for getting students the critical mental health support that some of them need. One message that continues to echo throughout the school district is that we can truly rely on each other. I think it’s going to help our staffing challenges and help us manage the psychological, social, and emotional impact of COVID-19 on everyone.”
Juan Padró, founder and CEO of Denver’s Culinary Creative Group
“We knew there was a shutdown coming, and right after Mayor Hancock made the announcement, I already had my team assembled. We sat down, and I walked through what these types of situations look like—not a pandemic per se, but disaster situations. We discussed things like who to listen to, where to get your information, how to make sure you have all the basic necessities—water, a roof over your head, food, those types of things. Then we were able to shut the restaurants down and reopen pretty quickly with our to-go plan and a plan to feed our furloughed employees.
Throughout the pandemic, we had a ton of resiliency. We opened four restaurants, so I think we were the exception to the rule. Some of these restaurant groups are in big trouble. We haven’t seen the fallout from restaurants—that’s coming, still. What’s closed already is going to be small potatoes compared to what closes in the next four months. But ultimately, none of that matters so much as how we treat one another. We should focus on lifting people up and making sure our people are taken care of. Ultimately, I believe that’s how we’ll be remembered.”
Dr. Robert Davis, project manager for the Reimagining Policing Task Force
“Our task force is a community initiative that officially formed in Denver in September 2020, and it was in response to the murder of George Floyd. When we were having our first community meeting to convene, we were Zoom bombed. Some guy came on the screen and repeated a racial slur over and over. It was one of the most tragic but necessary things that happened. It really galvanized us, as a community, as individuals that wanted to see change. What it told us was, what we’re doing is so important, that people are willing to stoop to the most vulgar and gross levels to try to disrupt it. I’ve learned that the community is extraordinarily resilient. It will not be stopped. Progress will not be stopped. Our job is to continue to bring the community together to develop the best solutions for public safety. We will continue to work with the city and to push the city to bring solutions to pass.”
Michelle Seubert, Barr Lake park manager and Colorado Parks and Wildlife park ranger
“In 2020, we had more boat rescues than we’ve ever had, ever. During the pandemic, everything closed down except for our parks. So people went out and bought canoes, paddle boards, and kayaks and had no idea what they were doing. People were walking off trail and leaving trash, too. It put some added pressure on us. It wasn’t just the extra people; it was extra people that didn’t know how to be in the outdoors. For us, it is important to make sure people still have that outlet. We are still busier than we have ever been. Now, in every one of our outdoor programs, we incorporate a “Leave No Trace” component, that has to do with signage, programming, and messaging to the public, which outlines minimum impact practices for anyone visiting the outdoors.”
Dr. Rachel Herhily, state epidemiologist for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment
“The magnitude of the situation hit me in early March 2020, when I was reading a paper that suggested we would continue to see waves of infections for 18 months. I think with regards to public health, we were probably better prepared for a deadly influenza virus, which we had seen before, than a novel disease. The hardest part became asking Coloradans to repeatedly make sacrifices, like staying home. The virus we were dealing with two years ago was also very different than what we are dealing with right now. The way it behaved changed. But I think we learned a lot of important lessons about strategies to combat such a virus, including masking, social distancing, and vaccinations. I have some colleagues who made shirts that say, “Make Epidemiology Boring Again.” Certainly, public health officials were pushed into the spotlight in ways they never had been before. Beyond doing my job well, I hope my presence at news conferences, like with the governor, while wearing a white coat, helped reach or inspire women interested in science.”
John Ekeberg, executive director of Broadway and Cabaret at Denver Center for the Performing Arts
“The last live, indoor theater that we were able to do was on Thursday, March 12, 2020. We were hearing that things were going to start to close down, and we knew that would affect us greatly because our whole purpose is to bring people together. That Thursday, we had a morning show, which was specifically a student matinee for The SpongeBob Musical, and we had about 2,000 students come down to the Buell [Theater] for that. And I just remember feeling incredibly sad and melancholy to see all these excited audience members coming to the theater, but knowing that pretty soon, we wouldn’t be able to do it.
Over the last couple of years, we would ask, ‘When do you think we can get back to doing what we do?’ The language indicates sort of going backwards to doing things the same. But I would say our whole industry is focused on how to adjust and do things better and smarter, and take on the challenges of the future, rather than try to work backwards. [Today], the Arts Complex has been incredibly vibrant. So we the DCPA—with touring Broadway, our theater company, self-produced shows—are back up and going. To see all the energy come back into the Arts Complex and downtown [now] has been incredibly encouraging that storytelling and the community that is created around live performing arts obviously still matters and is of value. It’s been incredibly rewarding and affirming for the future.”