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Democratic governor who lifted mask mandate early explains why it was the right move

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pulls off his mask on Jan. 10 in Denver.
David Zalubowski
Colorado Gov. Jared Polis pulls off his mask on Jan. 10 in Denver.

Last July, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis lifted that state's mask mandate, even in schools. For a Democratic governor, it was a surprising move. And then the delta wave came and, later, the omicron variant. Yet Polis didn't bring back a statewide indoor mask requirement.

Local jurisdictions were able to make their own decisions. Unlike many Republican governors, he didn't ban all mandates. And cities like Denver and Boulder (the liberal city where Polis and his family live) kept their indoor mask requirements in place until recently.

In an interview with The NPR Politics Podcast, Polis explained his reasoning and talked through the lessons he thinks Democrats facing tough midterm races might take from the Colorado experience.

He took a pragmatic approach to masks

Masks are a potent symbol of the political polarization that has dominated the COVID-19 pandemic response. Liberals embraced masks as a way to protect themselves and others from the coronavirus. Conservatives saw masks as unnecessary at best and considered mask mandates as an infringement on freedom.

Colorado is a state that has trended Democratic in recent years but still has deep red Republican pockets. Polis said he consulted with the state epidemiologist and took in Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance but concluded that mask requirements "didn't seem to accomplish much."

At the individual level, he said, wearing a high-quality mask does reduce risk of contracting COVID-19, and he's thrilled his parents are still masking up. But from a policy perspective, he didn't see a blanket policy dramatically changing behavior.

"Maybe there's a few people that are waiting for somebody to tell them they have to, but in general, people are going to do what they want to do," he says.

That doesn't mean Polis didn't face pushback from people who felt he was being irresponsible or pandering to conservatives. Even when the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus swept through, he insisted that it wasn't a politically risky decision. He said:

"I never doubted that it was the right thing. We have some neighboring states that required masks, and they had as much COVID, if not more than we did, and deaths and hospitalizations. Obviously, there are some people that wanted everybody to continue to wear masks and so forth. But the burden on an elected leader to tell people kind of what to wear or do is very high. You need to convince me as governor that this will do something. We're not just going to just wear masks for the heck of it. So unless we're convinced that this requirement is necessary to save our hospital capacity, which it obviously was before the vaccine existed, then why would we do it?"

The result: Some parts of Colorado haven't had a mask mandate in place for nearly a year. Others, like Denver and Boulder, only recently dropped theirs as omicron was on the retreat and the CDC loosened its mask guidance. Politically, in those more liberal cities, a mask mandate would face little resistance, while in more conservative areas, masking was and remains deeply unpopular.

Polis credits turning down the temperature on the mask wars with a successful drive to vaccinate Coloradans

Yes, his policy wasn't in sync with the CDC's guidance, but as Polis saw it, the CDC makes recommendations for individuals. And for an individual, wearing a mask can absolutely reduce risk. But as a governor, Polis would be telling people what they had to do, not what they should do. He said there's a higher standard there.

Polis credits turning down the temperature on mask conflicts with helping his state vaccinate a large share of its adult population quickly.

"It's a direct correlation. We're the, I think, 10th- or 11th-highest percentage vaccinated. We're also ninth- or 10th-lowest death rates. I mean, the two are linked, right? The reason we're having one of the lowest death rates is because we have highest vaccine rates. It reduces your risk 96%. ... And to have that credibility as a messenger of that in Colorado, it was important that we didn't get into these things like mask mandates and other things because we want to be trusted purveyors of real scientific information. And that's why one of the reasons I think we were so effective in getting people vaccinated."

He gave advice to Democrats running for office this fall

For many Democrats, the Virginia governor's race in 2021 was a wake-up call. Republican Glenn Youngkin rode a wave of parent outrage over coronavirus-related school closures and mask mandates to a commanding win. He promised to lift the state's mask requirement in schools and ban local districts from imposing their own mandates. And he won.

In recent weeks, remaining statewide mask mandates have been falling like dominoes in blue states from California to New Jersey. Colorado, with its swing-state legacy, was way ahead. And Polis benefited from that politically. Recent polls have found him viewed more favorably than other Democratic politicians, including President Biden. A survey last fall from Global Strategy Group found that 57% of Colorado voters approve of Polis' job performance.

Polis faces reelection this November, and his prospects look good. The Cook Political Report rates the race as solidly Democratic.

The NPR Politics Podcast asked Polis what political lessons other Democrats should take from the Colorado experience.

"Democrats focused, of course, rightly so on the health side of this crisis. Many Republicans also focused on health but talked about the economic side of this. But one side that I wish was talked about more because, frankly, I think it hits close to home for people: It's just the psychological impact of these measures, right? Like, can you see your friends? Can your kid have a birthday party? Can you visit grandma? I mean, to many people, economics is important. Risk is important. But living your lives in fulfilling ways is probably even above those two for most people, and through a lot of this, neither party really spoke to that."

While doing away with mask mandates early, Colorado doubled down on other prevention tools, distributing high-quality masks to state residents who chose to wear them and sending free rapid coronavirus tests directly to people's homes — well before the federal government did. When booster shots became available, Polis opened them up to all adults rather than initially prioritizing elderly and immunocompromised people. The reasoning was that with plenty of supply, the state wanted to get as many boosters in arms as possible and avoid potential confusion about who was eligible.

"We kind of really tried to focus on that lived experience that people have, first and foremost. And yes, visiting grandma or not, here's your risk parameters. Here's how you make the decision. Do you wear a mask with her? Do you test beforehand? Do you make sure she's vaccinated when the vaccine came out? But obviously the answer was never to say, 'No, you can't be with your loved ones in any way.' And of course, the economic side is valid. Maybe some of the Republicans overemphasize that, but I think that the psychological piece is extremely important as well. So as we look for the future, I think it's important to take into account, in addition to people's physical health, in addition to people's economic well-being, people's happiness."

Colorado has a new road map for the next phase of the pandemic, a plan for moving into an endemic phase while remaining on alert for future variants. It has a lot of overlap with the road map the Biden administration rolled out a few days later. Although Polis hasn't given up on those who remain unvaccinated, at this point he says the rest of society can't wait for them.

"Once [the vaccine] was available, it became a matter of personal responsibility to get protected," Polis said. "After they take that step, we need to get on with our lives."

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Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.