In a flurry of unprecedented first-day activity Wednesday, President Joe Biden issued more than a dozen executive actions intended to kick-start an aggressive plan to tame the year-old pandemic that has shocked the economy and whose death toll passed a grim milestone on the eve of his inauguration.
Moments after being sworn in just before noon on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, Biden paused his inaugural address to lead what he called a "silent prayer" for the more than 400,000 victims of the new coronavirus, one year to the day since public health officials diagnosed the first case of COVID-19 in the United States.
“We have much to do in this winter of peril, and significant possibilities," Bien said. "Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build and much to gain."
The night before, Biden led a nationwide memorial for COVID-19 victims at the Lincoln Memorial as the sun went down in Washington. Organizers asked those who lost someone to the virus to light a candle as bells rang across the country at the same time.
Pat Duncan, who helped organize the remembrance at the Denver City and County Building, told 9News that she never imagined the pandemic's toll would grow as much as it has.
“The reason I chose this event is my family lost a nephew and an aunt to COVID-19," she said as the city building was bathed in amber light. "Our family was devastated."
She added that everyone who lost family members could join to mark the beginning of a journey toward uniting the country.
Among the pile of executive orders and other documents Biden signed Wednesday was a mandate requiring masks and physical distancing on federal property, an element of the "100 Days Masking Challenge" meant to slow the spread of the virus as new variant surge through a weary population.
He's also reversing a decision by Donald Trump to quit the World Health Organization, creating a COVID-19 response coordinator responsible for speeding up distribution of vaccines and reassembling a White House team — also disbanded by Trump — devoted to responding to the pandemic.
Colorado is reporting the fewest number of COVID-19 deaths since March, and Gov. Jared Polis said Tuesday that one in five state residents age 70 and older will have been vaccinated by the end of the week.
As of Wednesday, public health officials reported Colorado had counted 4,579 deaths due to the coronavirus, and 5,422 patients who died with COVID-19, including some who died of other causes.
Biden plans to introduce a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package — including $400 billion in direct aid to battle COVID-19 — but that could depend on the Democrats' narrow majority in the House and whisker-thin advantage in the Senate.
In the meantime, Biden said he'll extend federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures that were set to expire at the end of January through at least March 31. He'll also push a timeout on federal student loan payments through at least Sept. 30, easing economic tensions while the country grapples with heading toward a post-pandemic reality.
Polis let a state eviction moratorium expire at the end of December, leaving the federal protections in place for certain renters who meet income qualifications and who have been affected financially by the pandemic.
Nationwide, an estimated 30 million to 40 million renters are facing eviction, a December study by the National Resources Defense Council determined, with millions owing an estimated $70 billion in back rent due to job losses, illness and the need to supervise children attending school virtually, according to the National Apartment Association.
“President Joe Biden is delivering on his campaign promises on Day One of his presidency," said Morgan Carroll, who chairs Colorado's Democratic Party. "From protecting our natural environment and public lands through the Paris Climate Agreement, to keeping struggling Americans in their homes through the eviction and foreclosure moratoriums, we’re seeing in real time what happens when you elect compassionate leaders."
U.S. Rep. Ken Buck, the Colorado GOP chairman, criticized Biden's planned executive orders as the incoming president's attempt to keep campaign promises made to "the extreme left wing of the Democratic Party."
Citing a Biden proposal to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 — Buck called it a "job-destroying minimum wage hike" — Buck accused the Democratic administration of using "the pandemic as an opportunity to pass disastrous liberal policies."
Said Buck: "A $15 minimum wage mandate could destroy up to 4 million jobs and place crushing burdens on small businesses."