Colorado’s new 5 Star State Certification Program — a way for businesses to increase capacity during the pandemic over what’s normally allowed — is up and running in a handful of counties, while several others are still waiting for the state health department to approve their applications.
Arapahoe and Broomfield counties will become the latest jurisdictions to start their own 5 Star programs after the state approved their applications Dec. 29, a spokesperson from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment confirmed in a 6 p.m. email.
The counties can now certify restaurants and event venues to accommodate patrons indoors — even though both counties’ COVID-19 metrics are still poor enough to situate them in the red level of the state’s COVID-19 dial system. Normally, counties in the red level must close indoor dining, limit gyms to 10% capacity and ban indoor events.
However, under the new 5 Star Program, businesses that demonstrate adherence to additional safety requirements — such as enforcing a mandatory mask policy, ensuring 6 feet of distance between household groups, and screening employees daily for COVID-19 symptoms — may operate under orange-level capacity restrictions. The orange level allows restaurants, gyms and indoor venues to accommodate up to 25% of their pre-COVID capacity.
Arapahoe County’s Five-Star Recovery Partner Program will initially prioritize restaurants, gyms and indoor events for certification, according to the county’s website. Other businesses such as salons and office spaces can also apply.
Broomfield County will provide more information on its own Back to Business Certification Program during a live webinar Dec. 30.
List of 5 Star-approved counties grows
Even while hospitalizations for COVID-19 remain far above summer levels, with 21% of hospitals expecting staff shortages within the next week, a total of seven red-level — “severe risk” — counties currently have 5 Star programs in place. They allow certified businesses that pass an inspection to adhere to capacity restrictions one level below what their county’s dial level would normally require. Counties interested in implementing such a program must apply through CDPHE before certifying any businesses.
Arapahoe and Broomfield counties join Douglas, Larimer, La Plata, Summit and Mesa counties, which all have their own versions of the certification program for businesses.
Douglas County announced Dec. 23 that the CDPHE had delivered an early Christmas gift by approving its COVID Best Practices Business Certification Program.
“We’re pleased the state listened to us, honored our request, and worked with Douglas County to implement our local program, protecting both lives and livelihoods,” County Commissioner Abe Laydon said in a statement. “We are grateful for the partnership among community leaders which accelerated the creation of this progress for our business community.”
Douglas County immediately allowed 18 restaurants, 14 gyms/fitness centers, and one indoor event venue to accommodate up to 25% of their pre-COVID capacity under its program. As of Dec. 29, the county’s list had grown to 155 certified businesses.
As of Dec. 29, Douglas County was still under the red level of the state’s COVID-19 dial system, reporting 397 new cases per 100,000 residents and a test positivity rate of 6.6% over the preceding two weeks.
Before launching a 5 Star Program, counties that are under the red level of the state’s dial must show COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are declining, and that their test positivity rate is below 10%, or declining, over the previous two weeks.
CDPHE finalized 5 Star Program guidelines Dec. 16 and launched an application process for counties two days later.
“This is a way to reward the businesses that take the right precautions — for going above and beyond — and it’s optional for counties and cities,” Gov. Jared Polis said at a Dec. 18 briefing, where he announced that Summit County would be the first to have its 5 Star Program approved through the new application process.
Mesa County pioneers variance program
Meanwhile, Mesa County’s pilot version of the 5 Star Program has been up and running for several months. The county first launched its program in the summer as a way to let businesses safely increase their capacity in collaboration with the local health department. When Mesa County moved to the red level of the dial in November, CDPHE initially sought to end the program until virus metrics improved — but local officials lobbied the governor’s office, and the state health department reversed its stance, according to reporting from the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
“I want to applaud Mesa County for their leadership in pioneering the 5 Star Program,” Polis said at the briefing.
In Mesa County, hundreds of restaurants, retailers, salons and more have received 5-Star certifications since the Variance Protection Program launched in the summer. The county’s metrics have kept it solidly in the red level since late November — with 714 new cases per 100,000 people and a 6.1% test positivity rate over the past two weeks.
626 on Rood, a fine-dining restaurant and wine bar in Grand Junction, was first certified through Mesa County’s program in August, said chef and co-owner Theo Otte.
Otte attributes much of 626 on Rood’s relative success during the pandemic to a loyal customer following built up over the years since he and his wife, Brenda Wray, opened the restaurant in 2006. They’ve also gained resilience overcoming challenges including the Great Recession. But maintaining indoor capacity has been “huge” in helping them navigate the uncharted waters of the pandemic, Otte said.
The restaurant was able to maintain indoor capacity, Otte said, at a time when any further restrictions would have forced him to lay off wait staff. 626 on Rood employed 12 or 13 people in February and currently has a team of 11 working full time, even though sales are down by about half.
One of the biggest benefits of the 5 Star Program, Otte said, is that it’s formed lines of communication between the health department and business owners, allowing him to get the latest updates on restrictions and know who to ask about proper protocols when someone on his staff tested positive for COVID-19.
Local officials “deserve huge credit for finding ways to communicate what’s going on almost in real time now,” Otte said.
Three weeks ago, the restaurant received a random inspection, which it passed, Otte said. He appreciates the county’s work to hold businesses accountable.
“My concern about this was that it would be all talk and no show,” he said.
Otte thinks such programs could be successful in other counties if there’s regular communication, including a follow-up audit to make sure certified businesses are still following protocols, and a “good-faith effort by all parties involved to comply with what we need to do right now.”
Counties launch 5 Star programs, focusing first on restaurants
Summit County, which reported 742 new cases per 100,000 people and a 5.9% test positivity rate over the past two weeks, has certified more than 160 restaurants since launching its own program Dec. 18, according to county spokesperson Nicole Valentine. The red-level county opened applications to gyms and fitness centers on Dec. 28.
Businesses interested in increasing their capacity are asked to send applications to the town where they’re located, or, for those in unincorporated areas, Summit County. Upon receiving an application, the town or county contacts the business to schedule an inspection before issuing a certification.
“The 5 Star Certification program has been an overwhelming success thanks to the partnership between the towns and county,” Valentine said in an email. “The program is bringing hope to our businesses for the holidays by enabling them to open to further capacity.”
Larimer County’s 5 Star Program was approved the same day as Douglas County’s, on Dec. 23. The county is also classified as red, but its metrics are more similar to Douglas County’s than Mesa’s or Summit’s, with two-week data showing 402 new cases per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 6.1%.
“We are thrilled that CDPHE, the Larimer County Commissioners and the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment (LCDHE) provided this opportunity for business to reopen safely,” Ann Hutchison, executive vice president of the Fort Collins Area Chamber, said in a statement from the county. “This could make the difference between survival and closure for so many of our business partners.”
Larimer County maintains an online list of businesses certified through its Level Up Program. As of Dec. 29, the list included 72 businesses, many of them restaurants and breweries.
CDPHE approved La Plata County’s 5 Star Program on Dec. 24, a CDPHE spokesperson said. As of Dec. 29, 43 businesses had applied to the county for certification, and 20 had been inspected and 5-Star approved, according to Pam Glasco, the 5 Star team administrator.
“We have a good team of professionals who are working to ensure that our restaurants comply with the CDPHE guidelines,” Glasco said in an email, adding that the county would focus next on gyms and fitness centers, followed by personal services.
La Plata County was still under red-level restrictions as of Dec. 29, with 478 new cases per 100,000 people and a positivity rate of 6.1% over the preceding two weeks.
Denver yet to submit application
Denver, the state’s largest city and county by population, would be likely to qualify for a 5 Star Program based on its falling case numbers and positivity rate. But Denver had not submitted an application as of late December, according to Tammy Vigil, a Denver Department of Public Health and Environment spokesperson.
“That probably won’t happen until mid-January,” Vigil said in an email.
Some health experts and local officials have expressed concern about allowing indoor dining, which is considered a risky activity during the pandemic. The coronavirus circulates most easily in enclosed spaces where people aren’t wearing masks, and with customers eating inside, both of those factors are in play.
“Imagine infected diners sitting at a restaurant. They aren’t wearing a mask because they are eating,” wrote Dr. Jonathan Samet, dean and professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, and Elizabeth Carlton, an associate professor for the school at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, in a recent guest editorial for the Denver Post.
“The infected persons release virus into the air when they talk and even when they breathe,” Samet and Carlton continued. “Those virus particles can travel and remain in the air for hours so that people throughout the restaurant may be exposed. Indoors is riskier than outdoors because the walls and ceilings that enclose indoor spaces trap the virus, allowing it to build up in the air over time — much like cigarette smoke.”
The infectious disease experts concluded that “restaurants and bars should remain closed to indoor dining until community spread is reduced to low levels, slowing the spread of infections and saving lives.”