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Colorado Governor On Ongoing Wildfires And Coronavirus Surge In His State

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And we begin this hour in Colorado because if you went looking for a state staring down the multiple challenges of these unsettled times all at once, you could do worse than look at Colorado. There is, of course, the challenge of ensuring a free and fair election unfolds in the coming days. There is the fact that 2020 marks one of Colorado's worst wildfire years in recorded history - more than 400,000 acres burned. And there's the pandemic, which the state's Democratic governor, Jared Polis, says could worsen in the coming months.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JARED POLIS: We just have this short window of time to get this back under control before the holiday season. And we need to do it. Every one of us needs to really ask ourselves, what is our resolve to avoid unnecessary loss of life?

KELLY: Governor Jared Polis of Colorado, and he joins us now.

Governor, welcome back.

POLIS: A pleasure to join you.

KELLY: The unfortunate fact is that COVID cases in Colorado are going up and up and up. I know back in August, the state was logging about 2,000 new cases a week and that last week, you had, like, four times that many - more than 8,000 cases. What can you do to rein this in?

POLIS: Well, we have a mask requirement that when people are around others indoors - in stores, in the office - they need to wear a face mask at all times unless they're, you know, alone in a store or a workplace.

KELLY: Just before we move on from that, that expires in a couple of weeks. Is that right? Are you likely to renew?

POLIS: Oh, let's see. I have to - we obviously evaluate it based on the data where we are at any given time with regard to the end date of that. But certainly, where we are today, that's critical. It's a critical tool to help contain the spread. And then just recently, there's a public health order that we issued that limits social gatherings to 10 people or less and very critically, no more than two households. So if people do need to - feel the need to socialize, we totally understand that but not a neighborhood block party, not three or four different households. No more than two households.

KELLY: As you know, two Denver area churches have filed suit against the state. They're challenging those orders. They won. How do you manage the growing number of infections in your state when you have lawsuits being filed trying to prevent you from enacting protections like that?

POLIS: Well, it should - really about people wanting to do the right thing. I was so thrilled to see several Episcopal and other bishops supporting, you know, mask-wearing among their members and their congregation. We've seen so many institutions of faith go online, limit their attendance. I think, certainly, a lot of faith leaders care deeply about the lives of their congregants and understand that we'll be able to rejoice and fellowship in person again in the not-too-distant future but that we're not there yet.

KELLY: Let me turn you to wildfires. The three largest fires in Colorado's recorded history have all burned this year. It's staggering. Two of them are still burning. How prepared is the state to handle the current situation and to deal with potentially more years in future like this?

POLIS: Well, first of all, we're grateful for snow, which fell heavily on our state over the weekend. But what we're seeing in Colorado is a drier, hotter climate because of climate change. In fact, this year, we had our three largest fires in the history of our entire state, all in one year. And as we prepare for that new normal, it's really making sure that we do the mitigation, perimeter protection around towns and homes that we need to do to keep people safe.

KELLY: I'm thinking about just the incredible challenge for your state - and you as the governor tasked with running it - of managing these two things happening at once - a pandemic where you want everybody to stay home, stay put and stay, you know, within your pod, socially distance. And then you've got these fires burning that are forcing thousands of people to evacuate and do the exact opposite.

POLIS: Well, so we've had to have the pandemic lens on all of the fire efforts from the very start. So what does that mean? - it means the firefighters themselves, of course. Traditionally, firefighters have what they - you know, pardon the somewhat sexist terminology - but they call them man camps. Now, obviously, there's a number of women that are part of those as well. What does that mean normally? Under normal conditions pre-pandemic, it means, you know, a shared latrine, shared mass hall. During the pandemic, that is not advisable. We know that congregate living facilities like that are dangerous. And so they have distributed. They're basically in tents in different areas. There's no mess hall. There's no latrine. With the evacuees, again, what do you envision normally with evacuees? It might be a high school gymnasium with 80 families, not something that is safe to do during the pandemic. And so they're...

KELLY: Right.

POLIS: Thankfully, we're at kind of the - October is not the tourism season in Colorado, so there's a lot of hotel capacity. So generally speaking, a lot of the evacuees - those who don't have friends or loved ones that they can live with in the area - are essentially in their own hotel rooms as a family.

KELLY: Well, just in case there wasn't enough to keep you busy, we've got this election. I know you've got early voting underway. It looks like you're possibly going to see record-breaking turnout. I saw that just as of Friday, more than 1.4 million ballots have already been returned in Colorado. How confident are you in the integrity of this election in your state?

POLIS: Well, I feel really good about Colorado. We have a number of different ways to vote safely and securely. Most people vote by mail. We've been doing that for well over a decade. I really can't even remember the last time I voted in person. It was available for the better part of two decades here. And then for people who don't want to vote by mail, they can vote early or they can vote on Election Day.

KELLY: How confident are you that you will know who won by the end of the night November 3?

POLIS: In Colorado, well, in - you know, in close races, you might not know until later. But generally, they have a pretty good reporting number late Tuesday night. And I - there's no exception for this. I'm sure there's always a few state Senate and state House races that are close that you might not know till the final count is out a couple of weeks later. But for anything where there's a candidate that's won by a large number of votes, more than the number that remains challenged or uncounted, they usually call them pretty quickly.

KELLY: Well, Governor Polis, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to us on top of everything else on your plate. We appreciate it.

POLIS: Always a pleasure. Take Care.

KELLY: That is Jared Polis, the Democratic governor of Colorado. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.