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How Nebraska And Colorado Are Dealing With Coronavirus Surges

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

If the coronavirus were a wildfire, it would be burning out of control across the country. And how states respond to the pandemic depends largely on who's in the governor's mansion. Whether they are Democrats or Republicans, America's governors face the same pressures over the coronavirus - that is, striking a balance between protecting the public while also keeping a healthy economy. You can see that in the neighboring states of Colorado and Nebraska, where the governors are of different parties, and today both announced increased measures to slow down the virus. Joining us now are member station reporters who are tracking them closely. We have Fred Knapp with NET News in Nebraska and Colorado Public Radio's Ben Markus.

Welcome to both of you.

FRED KNAPP, BYLINE: Thank you.

BEN MARKUS, BYLINE: Thanks for having us.

CHANG: Let's start with you, Fred. Nebraska's Republican Governor Pete Ricketts has been holding pretty much daily press conferences, right? What are some of the new measures he's putting in place?

KNAPP: Yes, he has. The press conferences, I should note, have been via video feed this week because the governor and his wife are in quarantine, having had somebody over to their house who later tested positive for the coronavirus. The latest is that there's a ban announced today on elective surgeries that can be put off four weeks or more, and the idea is to preserve hospital capacity because hospitalizations for COVID have nearly doubled in the last two weeks. They're up 90%.

CHANG: Wow. OK, Ben. Colorado's Democratic Governor Jared Polis also announced today that he's signing an updated executive order related to hospitals there. Tell us what it says.

MARKUS: So before he announced that executive order, he started with the numbers, and they are all bad. Cases are up exponentially here, and hospitalizations have risen quickly along with them. And so he acknowledged that this goes beyond Colorado.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JARED POLIS: These are our darkest days as a nation. They are our darkest days as a state. It's going to take all of us working together to get through the weeks and months ahead.

MARKUS: So the order he issued today sets up kind of an order of operations should hospitals near capacity, like eliminating elective procedures - like what's going on in Nebraska - if needed, and when to open alternative care sites. These are, like, temporary hospitals for overflow. And the models that Colorado has show that we could exceed hospital capacity in December some time.

CHANG: Wow. And how do those measures compare to actions Polis took when the virus first hit Colorado?

MARKUS: So in March, he instituted a statewide lockdown, as many states did. He was the first official I saw wear a mask in public, and I think that sent a powerful message. He eventually, over the summer, instituted a statewide mask mandate that's still in place. And there's lots of targeted measures where counties have to limit capacity at restaurants, for instance, as cases rise. But the virus has lingered, and now today it's growing really fast. But still, he's kind of stopped short of issuing that second lockdown.

CHANG: A lot of those early actions you just described, Ben, they sound pretty different from how Governor Ricketts in Nebraska initially responded to the pandemic, right, Fred?

KNAPP: Yes. Ricketts has a business background, and he's taken a very businesslike, calibrated approach. So other than early on shutting bars, restaurants, barbershops, beauty parlors and tattoo parlors, there were no designations of nonessential businesses or mandatory closings. And the governors - points to the fact that Nebraska has the lowest unemployment rate in the country and the state's in pretty good financial shape as evidence that his approach is justified.

CHANG: But I understand that some doctors and other health professionals have launched sort of, like, a social media campaign to pressure Ricketts to do more. I'm curious - how does what he announced today align with what they're calling for?

KNAPP: Well, it doesn't go anywhere near as far as what they're asking for. They want things like a statewide mask mandate, a prohibition on indoor dining at restaurants, a 10-person limit on gatherings and more distancing, which means fewer kids in the schools.

CHANG: And has Ricketts said anything about imposing any further restrictions in the future?

KNAPP: Yes. If hospitalizations continue to increase, he said he will move bars to carry-out, delivery or drive-through service only. There'll be a prohibition on youth sports or extracurricular activities below the high-school level. And there will be a 10-person limit on indoor gatherings. But still, no statewide mask mandate.

CHANG: And, Ben, back to you in Denver. How do you think what Governor Polis said today will be received, ultimately? What's your sense?

MARKUS: Well, I think that Polis has been under tremendous pressure to issue another lockdown or targeted lockdowns in counties where they have high case rates. And he's been really reluctant to do so. He says that the state and the doctors, they have a better handle on how to manage this virus versus what it was like back in March. His tactic this time is really heavy on stark warnings. I think he thinks that if he can get the message out for people to limit contacts, that could be the key. So he said today, for instance, that not self-quarantining before Thanksgiving was, like, quote, "bringing a loaded pistol for grandma's head," unquote.

CHANG: Wow. All right, that is Ben Markus with Colorado Public Radio in Denver and Fred Knapp with NET News in Lincoln, Neb.

Thanks to both of you.

KNAPP: Thank you.

MARKUS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.