When Gov. Jared Polis issued a statewide stay-at-home order in March, he did so with the knowledge that federal coronavirus relief — including $1,200 checks, $600 weekly unemployment benefits and small business loans — would buoy a wide range of Coloradans facing economic ruin and all that can come with it: hunger, housing instability, mental health crises, joblessness.
Things are even worse today, virus-wise, than they were when he issued that order, which shut down the majority of retail business in the state for more than a month and preceded a temporary flattening of the COVID-19 curve in Colorado. But this time, there’s no federal financial safety net, since Congress has failed to agree on a new stimulus package.
In interviews with The Denver Post, Polis, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Congressman Ed Perlmutter and several top state budget officials acknowledged that it would be easier for Colorado leaders to pull the trigger on stay-at-home orders they know could save lives if that safety net were still there.
“We really could not have taken the steps that we did to contain the virus in March and April without knowing that people would be receiving $1,200 (checks), and rental assistance, and small businesses got (loans). That was a big part of it,” Polis said. “The federal government was paying you to stay home. … It worked. It was a one-time intervention.”
He added, of today’s outlook, “It’s unfair to ask people not to be able to pay rent and put food on the table. That’s not a reasonable ask of Coloradans.”
Millions of Coloradans are staring down those very problems. A survey this month by the U.S. Census Bureau found that more than a quarter of people here belong to households struggling to meet basic expenses. The survey found two in five households are behind on rent or mortgage payments, and that nearly one in 10 households doesn’t have enough to eat.
“I’ve handed out boxes of food at some of our events on Fridays, where we give away food baskets,” Hancock said, “and there are people coming through there who’ve said to me, ‘Mayor, I’ve never imagined myself — I’ve never been in this situation before.’”
Tara Padilla knows what that feels like. She’s a bartender at the Denver Central Market inside Denver International Airport, and she lost her job for about three months earlier this year, between late March and midsummer. At that time, even with $600 per week in federal unemployment money — a benefit that hasn’t been available since July — she fell way behind on bills and maxed out her credit cards. She said she might’ve fallen into homelessness without the support of her partner.
In the absence of federal benefits, Padilla said another shutdown “would seriously financially ruin so many families that I know.”
She’s one of many thousands of workers who are having to make the impossible choice between risking infection at work and risking poverty or outright destitution.
“It’s disheartening knowing I’m having to put myself and my family at risk just to stay employed,” she said. “That’s a sacrifice I have to make, if I want to keep my car, keep my house.”
Low-wage workers face greatest risk
Economic ruin in a shutdown scenario can take many forms.
The teetering state budget would be further decimated, likely harming programs and services across state government.
A November survey of 170 members of the Colorado Restaurant Association found that 79% would have to consider closing permanently within six months if in-person dining is banned, as it was in the spring.
“People are very, very nervous about the winter. I cannot underscore that enough,” Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Restaurant Association, told The Post.
But perhaps no one stands to be as negatively impacted by another stay-at-home order as people earning low wages, who generally cannot telecommute and who have been disproportionately harmed throughout the pandemic. (The danger is even more pronounced among communities of color.)
In September, the governor’s office reported that unemployment has, at every point throughout the pandemic, been worse for the bottom third of earners than for the mid- or high-level tiers. In April, mid-shutdown, the bottom third faced roughly 25% unemployment — five times worse than for the top tier, at that time.
It is that population that still has the most to lose.
“The hesitancy around issuing another stay-at-home order does have a lot to do with the economic devastation that would occur,” said state Sen. Dominick Moreno, a Commerce City Democrat who chairs the legislative budget committee.
“The question is: if something like that was ordered, could the state afford to float the economy? Generally, the answer to that is no. The state budget is not in that place.”
Moreno, Polis and other state-level Democrats late last month announced a state stimulus program, with $375 one-time checks for some 435,000 Coloradans who earn less than $52,000 annually. Though those Democrats celebrated the announcement as an indication of their commitment to provide real relief to people in need, Moreno said last week that the announcement was really more notable for what it didn’t include.
“It’s not going to sustain people, honestly. It just isn’t,” he said. “It’s what we could afford to do.”
Colorado cannot deficit-spend, unlike the federal government, which is why state leaders are so desperately hopeful for a new round of stimulus from Congress.
Perlmutter, an Arvada Democrat, told The Post he predicts that new round will arrive “in the next month or so.”
Of state leaders’ dilemma, he said, “Their hesitation to add more restrictions is legitimate, because we haven’t been able to pass (new relief).”
The governor said in the spring and still today that a stay-at-home order is a last resort, a “blunt tool” that should be avoided in favor of more precise, scalpel-like measures. But the public health crisis today is even greater than it was in March and April, with the state setting new records for hospitalizations and new COVID-19 cases, and no sign of a plateau or decrease on the immediate horizon.
The scalpels aren’t working, and as of Friday the state’s color-coded dial system showed nearly half of Colorado’s 64 counties at Level Orange — one step away from a lockdown
Polis and local leaders have tried in countless press conferences and ad campaigns to persuade people to wear masks, avoid gatherings and maintain social distance. The governor has tried to scare people straight in his messaging, stating repeatedly that “the grim reaper” is the ultimate enforcer of coronavirus-related restrictions. On Friday he compared someone attending an unsafe family Thanksgiving gathering to putting “a loaded pistol to grandma’s head.”
He and other leaders have tried futilely to foist the responsibility to slow the spread of the virus on citizens.
“It’s about personal responsibility. It’s about recognizing that the things that I do impact people around me, and their health and wellbeing,” Hancock told The Post.
But he knows that message isn’t getting through to enough people.
“We can send people home,” Hancock said. “That’s our next — really, the thing we want to avoid the most.”
Some county-level officials have already pressed Polis to take action. Though Hancock has not called for a stay-at-home order yet, he did tell The Post he thinks that if Denver gets to that point, the order should come from the state and not from his office.
In March, Hancock pressed Polis behind the scenes to issue a statewide stay-at-home order. Polis initially resisted, and Hancock eventually placed Denver under lockdown two days before Polis relented and issued a statewide mandate.
Polis has lately tried not to entertain the idea of a stay-at-home order, answering questions about such a step by continuing to preach personal responsibility. The virus, meanwhile, is spreading uncontrolled through the state, possibly overwhelming hospital capacity here before year’s end.
State Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, who like Polis is a Democrat from Boulder, said his talks with the governor give him the impression Polis “absolutely gets it” that the messaging is falling flat.
Fenberg and many other state leaders are worried, however, about whether a stay-at-home order would even work this time around. People have grown accustomed to certain freedoms since the spring, and already there are some in the population resistant even to the least oppressive rules, such as wearing masks.
“They don’t want to have restrictive orders that people just entirely ignore,” Fenberg said. “Once you cross that line, that seriously, then it really starts to unravel, when people completely check out from following the orders.”
Hancock has this worry himself.
“People have gotten used to how you live with this,” he said. “And the reality is we like our freedom.”