Limited democracy keeps us safe, prosperous and free. We should always defend it, even more so in times of trouble. Instead, we’re suspending it for COVID-19.

Voters elect public officials to set policy within the confines of constitutional restraints. Elected officials manage government agencies that serve the public through war, peace and pandemic.

More than 1.3 million Americans have died in wars since the American Revolution ended in 1783, all to protect a country in which elected officials serve at the will of the governed.

All it took to change this was a virus with a case fatality rate Stanford Medical School professors place at 0.01%.

To see the suspension of representative governance, look to the dilemma facing El Paso County commissioners. They are empowered to govern the county — just not right now.

Several weeks ago, former teacher and Commissioner Peggy Littleton stood at the public lectern and asked her former colleagues to begin opening the county’s economy.

She fears a protracted continuation of the command recession will do more irreparable harm than good. Most of the commissioners shared her concern and began exploring safe options for allowing restaurants, churches, shops, and other businesses to reopen at a pace more aggressive than the state proposes.

Gov. Jared Polis told The Gazette editorial board he welcomed El Paso County commissioners to apply for a waiver to get people working sooner.

If our elected officials want to reopen the economy, it should be their call. We elected them to regulate common human activities, such as commerce and trade. They oversee the county’s regulatory agencies.

County commissioners want a variance, and last week would not be too soon. They worry about the virus but have a long list of other life-and-death concerns caused by the shutdown.

Although we elected and entrusted them to lead and serve, they cannot apply for the waiver Polis welcomed unless and until non-elected people tell them it is OK. It sounds like a joke, but it is not.

The governor has state-of-emergency powers. Under that authority, he developed the “Safer-at-Home” plan that outlines a gradual reopening of the economy. He is among the first governors to pursue reopening and for that, he deserves ample credit.

Polis vows to consider and approve appropriate variance requests, but there is a catch. Under his order, county commissioners cannot apply without the imprimatur of nonelected county Health Department officials and hospital administrators within the jurisdiction.

The governor should change this aspect of his waiver policy and leave this decision to people entrusted by voters who answer to the people. Don’t just talk about local control. Allow elected leaders to enact it without obstacles and excessive delays that tie their hands and prolong suffering.

We are blessed by the knowledge and skills of our local health professionals, but we neither asked nor authorized them to make policy. They focus primarily on their scientific disciplines, unlike elected officials who must consider economics, education, mental health, public safety, and a vast array of other human concerns affected by the pandemic but fall outside the realm of epidemiology.

“The hospitals are in no hurry,” said Commissioner Mark Waller. “We were on the phone with them this morning expressing our frustration. We need to be moving quicker. They’re just not willing to put up any type of timeline as to when they will sign off, saying they need more data.”

Commissioner Longinos Gonzalez was on the hospital call and later expressed frustration. Every day, he explains, more lives are ruined by the economic shutdown.

“We have people going out of business, going bankrupt, risking foreclosure,” Gonzalez said. “Domestic abuse is going up, as are violent sexual assault cases. Those are some of the many factors we have to look at on top of the virus cases. The variance is a process I wish could be done faster.”

All over the metro area, the state, and the rest of the country we witness and hear about business owners taking matters into their own hands.

They are opening regardless of “Safer-at-Home” rules, saying they have nothing to lose. Authorities cannot possibly harm them more than the permanent loss of their investments, incomes, employees, and hopes to retire with security.

For law enforcement, this conflict creates an ethical and legal conundrum. Unelected government employees could ask them to enforce regulations resulting from a perversion of our representative form of governance.

Imagine arresting a small-business owner who defied the shutdown for the sake of her family. It happened in Texas this week when a cosmetologist told a judge she would not apologize for working to feed her kids. He threw her in jail. Criminalizing work will not end well for anyone.

We cannot let public employees and hospital administrators dictate the course of our lives. It is not the way our system works in the land of the free. Gov. Polis can and should fix this by allowing local elected leaders to lead.

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