Jefferson County has been given the green light from the state to offer a program that would allow restaurants to bring more customers into their dining rooms. However, restaurants will not yet be …
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Jefferson County has been given the green light from the state to offer a program that would allow restaurants to bring more customers into their dining rooms. However, restaurants will not yet be able to take advantage of the provisions of the program following Gov. Jared Polis’ surprise announcement moving the county from Level Red to Orange on the COVID-19 dial on Dec. 30.
The county announced on Dec. 31 that it had been approved to implement the state’s 5 Star Certified Business Variance program in Jeffco.
Under that program, restaurants, gyms and other businesses have been allowed to operate under less restrictive capacity caps than their county’s level on the state COVID-19 dial would indicate if they take enhanced COVID-19 health and safety measures.
The program would theoretically allow approved Jeffco businesses to operate under Level Yellow restrictions, which allow restaurant dining rooms to operate at up to 50% capacity, while the county is in Level Orange. Level Yellow also allows restaurants to serve up to 100 guests at once, assuming there is enough room to space them all out according to an online social distancing calculator.
However while businesses will be now be able to apply for and receive Five Star certification, they won’t actually be able to utilize the higher capacity limits right away following an announcement from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. That announcement stated certified businesses will not be able to take advantage of the program and operate under Level Yellow until Jeffco has met the thresholds for moving into Level Orange for 14 days.
Those thresholds include a rate of new cases of less than 350 per 1000,000 people, a test positivity rate below 15% and hospitalizations decreasing or stable for more than eight days. Although Jeffco is currently meeting the latter two requirements, the county’s new case rate remains higher than 350 per 100,000 people.
A county press release announce the launch of the program stated that the county “will continue to work hard to launch our program and will provide updates as we have new information.”
How the program works
According to the application submitted to the state, Jeffco’s implementation of the program would initially be restricted to restaurants without drive-thru capability.
“We would plan to roll this program out to other categories of businesses if our COVID-19 milestone metrics remain stable or continue to show declines” reads a letter in the application signed by the three county commissioners.
Jeffco Commissioner Libby Szabo said the commissioners decided to start with restaurants without drive throughs because they have been some of the hardest hit by Level Red closures, particularly as cold weather limited outdoor dining. However, she said she was also hoping the program could soon be expanded to include gyms and other businesses.
To apply for a 5 Star variance, businesses will be required to implement several COVID-19 strategies listed on the CDPHE website.
For example, restaurants are required to improve their ventilation by either making improvements to their HVAC system or opening windows and doors during business hours to maximize airflow.
They are also required to make extra efforts to make special accommodations for at-risk populations and file plans with the county for outbreak detection, reporting and response. Businesses seeking certification may not have any prior citations of noncompliance with prior public health orders.
In its application, Jeffco proposes that its program be overseen by a committee consisting of representatives from the county manager’s office, Jeffco Public Health, six Jeffco city governments and seven county chambers of commerce and economic organizations.
The county will then contract with an unnamed third-party vendor that will process applications and conduct live inspections of all applicant businesses prior to granting them a 5 Star waiver.
The application states that the county has dedicated $250,000 to support the program and will assess its ability to provide more funding if and when it is needed. Applying for Five Star certification would be free for businesses.
The third-party vendor will be responsible for enforcement inspections. If violations are found during an inspection, the county manager will issue a written warning. If a second violation is identified within 90 days, the county will revoke the variance
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, counties in Level Red are eligible to implement a 5-star variance program only if a county has had a sustained two-week decline in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations as well as a test positivity rate that is either under 10% or improving over two weeks.
However, the program may be suspended if a county sees significant rises in any of those metrics. Suspension is automatic if the county’s hospitals exceed 90% of their ICU capacity.
The county application states that county COVID-19 cases declined 42.5% between Nov. 25 and Dec. 22, despite remaining above the threshold for moving into Level Yellow.
CDPHE rules require that any launch of a 5-star variance program within a county not detract from core public health functions. Jefferson County attempted to address that requirement with the following statement within its application:
“Continuity of on-going public health functions will not be compromised. Contact tracing,vaccine distribution, public information, surveillance, and other core functions will continue to be monitored and supported by the local Public Health Director and existing staff. Staff from our contact tracing and vaccine distribution teams will not be tasked with supporting the 5 Star program, as Jefferson County is hiring a third-party vendor to implement the 5 Star program with oversight from the Administrative Committee.”
What businesses can do now
The county is asking all businesses interested in securing a 5-star variance (not just restaurants without drive-thrus eligible for the first phase) to submit a business interest form indicating that they are willing and able to meet all criteria for a 5-star variance. Businesses can find and submit the form at www.jeffco.us/CivicAlerts.aspx?AID=1460.
Jeffco Public Affairs Director Julie Story said the county was told by CDPHE that it was processing county applications in about two business days but that the process could take longer during the holiday week. No decision had been made as of Dec. 31.
While the announcement was likely welcome news to many restaurants, some questioned the decision to limit the program to drive through-less restaurants.
In a post on their Facebook page, Archery Games Denver, an Arvada business that offers customers the chance to play a dodgeball-like game with bows and felt-tipped arrows, posted the following on their Facebook page:
“We hope Jefferson County Public Health will amend this program to prioritize all small businesses equally, not just restaurants. The new requirements for going ‘beyond what is already required by public health orders and guideline’ are exactly what we’ve done proactively since June. We’ve given all reservations the option to be totally private (the only place in Colorado that we know of where you can reserve 5,000 square feet for four people), changed how our training is conducted to increase social distancing, added cleaning procedures, invested in HEPA air filters, kept contact information for all groups, and kept our garage door open as much as possible. We’re proud that with thousands of guests since March, we’ve had 0 cases of covid among our team, and, as far as we know, our guests.”
For Szabo, who has frequently voiced concerns about the impacts prolonged institution of public health orders are having on businesses, the Five Star Program would represent more a step in the right direction than a cure to all the challenges faced by businesses.
“No one program addresses everything,” she said. “It is a work in progress and I am hoping this can be a big factor in the lives of these business owners who are trying to make a living when it’s been very difficult for them. Small business is really the backbone of our community.”
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