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Moments before he announced a statewide stay-at-home order on March 25, Governor Jared Polis took the podium at Colorado’s Emergency Operations Center in Centennial and began by giving a stark update on the toll of the COVID-19 outbreak in Colorado: 1,086 diagnosed cases, 148 hospitalizations, 19 deaths.
Later, the governor’s tone grew warm, expressive, even rhapsodic. “To everything there is a season,” he recited. “And a time to every purpose under the heaven.” Employing Chapter 3 of Ecclesiastes (and Pete Seeger’s lyrics), Polis built toward an adapted crescendo: “Now is the time to stay at home…. Now is not the time to die.”
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The dichotomy he presented at the press conference came to mark his leadership during the early days of the pandemic. He was invested in data, trusted science, and was direct when delivering distressing news. But he remained calm and—more important—human, helping us depend on him as a neighbor, a friend, and a goofy, blue-shoed Coloradan. What Polis knew, and what others should have heeded, was that we needed a leader capable of both making wise decisions and connecting with us on a personal level. So he explained social distancing through Star Wars references. He answered questions in Spanish at a press conference. When reopening the state, he returned to humor and verse, this time Paul Simon’s, tweeting, “If you happen to be hanging out with Julio down by the schoolyard, or anywhere else for that matter, make sure to wear a mask, because you never know when you might run into Rosie, the queen of Corona.”
Maybe he was just looking for good PR. If so, it often didn’t make headlines. On March 6, a parent at St. Anne’s Episcopal School in Denver tested positive for the new coronavirus. Polis checked in with the institution’s head of school as well as with the Republican who ran against him in the 2018 election—former state Treasurer Walker Stapleton, whose daughter attends St. Anne’s. “He could have blown me off,” Stapleton says. “He didn’t have to reach out, but he did.”
What lies ahead might be more difficult than what Polis faced in March. Already he’s taken criticism from many directions. Agitators objected to what they felt were unconstitutional stay-at-home orders in April, and when the state began reopening in May, critics, including MSNBC’s Steve Kornacki, argued that it was too soon, that not enough testing had been done, that contact tracing wasn’t in place, and that the curve wasn’t flat enough.
All that was before George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis sparked protests against police brutality and systemic racism across the country, including in Denver. Polis voiced support for protesters. He firmly rebuked President Donald Trump’s militant rhetoric. He said he’d work with legislators on a new bill for greater police accountability. But Polis also deployed the National Guard to quell violence and kept his distance from the demonstrations. A spokesperson for Polis says he was concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and found other ways to support the movement, but his absence invited some to question his investment in the struggle of Colorado’s Black community.
Now, in addition to navigating racial tensions and law enforcement reform, Polis has to oversee a stagnant economy and govern a population that—perhaps believing the worst of COVID-19 has passed—is itching to go to restaurants and bars again. In other words, he must maintain our trust. To do that, he needs to remember how he gained it in the first place: by offering his humanity and proving his decency; by being inclusive when the pandemic divided communities; and by connecting us through scripture and song. By reminding us that his fate is our fate is our neighbor’s fate—no matter the color of that neighbor’s skin. “People want to understand that you as a leader have empathy with their station in life,” Stapleton says. “That’s easier said than done, but it’s really important…that’s what people are yearning for, regardless of their political affiliation.”
There’s a time to talk numbers. The governor has done that. There’s a time to remind Coloradans of our shared identity. He’s done that, too. There’s also a time to heal. That starts now.