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Policy Becomes Personal – and Political

Reps. Matt Soper, a Republican, and Dafna Michaelson Jenet, a Democrat, share the podium at the legislature May 26.

As summer begins and strict social distancing rules come to an end, two trends present since the beginning of the pandemic are intensifying.

First, policy decisions are being made closer and closer to home, rather than in Denver or Washington. Second, Americans are viewing the pandemic and efforts to fight it through an increasingly partisan lens.

These two trends are related, and understanding them is important as we prepare for a possible resurgence of COVID-19 in the summer or fall.

Policy is Increasingly Fragmented

Gov. Jared Polis extended his Safer at Home order until June 1, but exceptions to the policy have become the rule. Of Colorado’s 64 counties, 33 have secured variances to the Safer at Home policy, often to open restaurants, malls, or churches. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has delayed five counties’ requests.

This means there is effectively not a statewide social distancing policy anymore. There are dozens of local policies that are similar but not identical.

The fragmentation of policymaking goes even further. Each day, all of us are making important policy choices for ourselves and our households, and the power of “personal policymaking” matters to a much greater degree during the pandemic than in most other times in history.

Public health interventions rely on people to make choices that benefit the greater good — staying home, washing hands, wearing masks. And the data show that most people have chosen well. New cases of COVID-19, hospitalizations, and deaths are all down in Colorado.

In fact, the people were one step ahead of public health orders when the pandemic came to Colorado. The chart below shows requests for driving directions to Apple Maps, a proxy for whether people were following stay-at-home orders. Coloradans started driving less a full two weeks before the first stay-at-home orders. They also started driving more before the statewide and metro Denver orders expired.

The takeaway is that people are assessing risks and making decisions for themselves — independent of official policy. Polls show that sizeable numbers of people are still worried about COVID-19. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released May 27 found that most people say they won’t fly on a plane or stay at a hotel in the coming months, while many won’t get a haircut or eat at a restaurant.

Colorado’s official policy now allows restaurants and hair salons to open, but for many people, their personal policies are telling them to stay away.

The Resurgence of Partisanship

Personal policymaking in this pandemic isn’t easy. It’s full of gray areas. When is a park too crowded to visit? What counts as an “essential” trip to the store? Should I go shopping or get takeout to support small businesses?

One way people make sense of complexity is through their partisan identities, which provide a philosophical lens and social cues to help make decisions. It’s no surprise that we are seeing partisanship creeping back.

The same Kaiser poll showed that Republicans were nearly twice as likely as Democrats to say they will eat at a restaurant. Meanwhile, 89% of Democrats say they wear a mask all or most of the time when they leave the house, while 58% of Republicans say the same.

It’s important to note that majorities at all points on the political spectrum are pro-mask. But mask-wearing has become a political signal for party elites, as President Donald Trump refuses to wear one, while Democratic challenger Joe Biden is proudly wearing one in public.

The mask spat came to Colorado this week when the legislature reconvened to finish its session. Journalists at the Capitol reported that all Democrats wore masks, but some Republicans didn’t. Research has found that elected officials are more polarized in their politics than the general public, and their public platforms magnify their visibility and personal policy choices.

These twin trends — the increasing power of the individual and the increase in political partisanship — will play key roles in our pandemic response as we move through the summer.

Public health experts, including researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health, are worried about a resurgence of COVID-19 in late August and September, just as students return to school. Reopening schools is crucial for Colorado’s kids, families, and economy, so we must do everything we can to tamp down a second wave of COVID-19.

The first wave has taught us that people are making policy for themselves, their choices are often ahead of official public policy, and they are increasingly leaning on partisan preferences to make sense of the pandemic.  

Colorado leaders have to harness these forces if we want to avoid more tragedy and have anything resembling a normal autumn.

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