The state public-health department is considering new rules that would allow businesses to operate at higher capacity than current coronavirus-related restrictions normally permit — as long as the …
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Mesa County, home of Grand Junction, was one of the first three counties Colorado allowed to enter the “protect our neighbors” phase — the state's lowest level of coronavirus-related restrictions — along with Gilpin and Rio Blanco counties in early September.
“Protect our neighbors” allows “all activities” at 50% of pre-pandemic capacity with up to 500 people in one setting, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's description of the phase earlier in the pandemic.
Counties are only eligible for that level if their virus trends are exceptionally low.
The phase is likely months away for Denver metro counties.
Two months after receiving the green light for the "protect our neighbors" phase, Mesa's COVID-19 spread had jumped toward the other end of the spectrum, causing the county to move to safer-at-home level orange, which at the time was one step short of a stay-at-home order on the state's COVID-19 "dial" of restrictions.
Mesa was among the counties that moved to level red — the new level that sits one step below a stay-at-home order and closed indoor dining and prohibited personal gatherings — on Nov. 20.
According to the state public-health department's draft of the program, here's how officials will move forward on the plan:
• By Dec. 4: Review progress in Mesa County to determine if the program is compatible with level red.
• Dec. 4-11: Finalize details of the program with local public health agencies, chambers of commerce, restaurants and so on based on Mesa County results.
• Dec. 14: Publish final details of eligibility and operations.
• Dec. 14-18: Conduct training with interested, eligible counties that want to implement the program.
• Dec. 18: Eligible counties can begin to launch if they have completed other steps.
The state public-health department is considering new rules that would allow businesses to operate at higher capacity than current coronavirus-related restrictions normally permit — as long as the businesses stick to strict protocols designed to prevent the virus' spread in their buildings.
Colorado is taking public input on what it calls the “business best practice certification” program, modeled after a system Mesa County has “pioneered and has successfully run since the summer,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wrote in a Nov. 27 news release.
Members of the public can view the draft of the program here and submit comments here. The deadline is Dec. 4.
Mesa County's “5-star rating program” was designed to allow Mesa's economy to achieve a wider reopening. Businesses qualify for the program based on their mask use, social distancing marking, facility capacity, written schedule for cleaning and active monitoring of symptoms, according to a Mesa County Public Health fact sheet.
The county's program website listed more than 200 businesses or entities as “current partners,” including roughly 100 restaurants, breweries and wineries.
If the state adopts a similar program, businesses that meet the requirements would generally be able to operate based on a level of the state's COVID-19 dial that is one notch less severe than the current level the business would otherwise have to follow. For example, a business in a “level orange” county could operate at “level yellow” capacity restrictions.
The state's COVID-19 dial, which has been in effect since September, is the set of different levels of restrictions that counties must follow based on the severity of each county's local virus spread. The dial grew out of the state's safer-at-home order — the policy that came after the statewide stay-at-home order this spring and allowed numerous types of businesses to reopen.
The recently announced level red — one step below a stay-at-home order — prohibits indoor dining and personal gatherings, along with tightening capacity restrictions at some business. The new level took effect on Nov. 20 and now includes Denver metro counties and other regions of the state.
The biggest change that would come with the state adopting a program similar to Mesa County's is that businesses in level red could be allowed to operate at level orange restrictions — a shift that, most notably, could allow restaurants to reopen indoor dining.
It's unclear whether the state will allow businesses in level red counties to operate at level orange, though. That is still to be determined depending on the “results of Mesa pilot,” according to the state public-health department's draft framework.
“Mesa County has a variance (an exemption) to operate its 5 Star program for 12 days while in red. This pilot will provide needed data on if a 5 Star program is compatible with suppression goals of the red level,” the draft framework says.
If a county crosses into level purple — the highest level on the dial, which would be a local stay-at-home order similar to the statewide stay-at-home seen in the spring — its businesses would not be eligible to operate at a lower level of restrictions, according to the draft framework.
The announcement from the state came amid pushback from some counties and businesses against the new level red restrictions.
In a letter to Gov. Jared Polis sent Nov. 25, Douglas County's elected leaders requested that the county be allowed to start a program that would keep qualifying restaurants open for indoor dining.
The commissioners referred to Mesa County's program, which allows qualifying restaurants to be open with limited capacity, according to The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction.
“It is not fair that a restaurant in Mesa County … is allowed to operate while businesses here can't,” Douglas County Commissioner Lora Thomas said in a Nov. 24 work-session meeting. “That is not right.”
Weld County officials have said they won't enforce the state's level red restrictions, multiple Colorado news outlets have reported.
According to the draft framework, businesses would qualify if they meet the following criteria:
• The business has a written plan about how it is implementing or exceeding state prevention guidelines, implementing or exceeding local prevention, and has a clear compliance and enforcement plan.
• 100% mask-wearing among staff and customers with “strong compliance and enforcement protocols.”
• All employees do daily symptom checks or screening either with CDPHE symptom tracker tool or other approved protocol.
• Perform regular outreach to employees and customers to activate the state's exposure notifications smartphone application that shares anonymous information with other users to alert them if they've been potentially exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19 and uploads their result to the system.
• Businesses must record the name and contact number of customers to be used for contact-tracing should a COVID-19 case be connected to that business.
• Business must comply with industry-specific requirements including that restaurants have table spacing of at least 10 feet and require reservations, gyms require reservations, and personal services require reservations. Further industry specific requirements will continue to be developed.
• Any business that has been cited for noncompliance with a public health order is ineligible to be certified.
Reporter Elliott Wenzler contributed to this story.
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