Some restaurants in Douglas County were permitted to immediately open for indoor dining after the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment gave official approval for the county to begin a business certification program Dec. 23.
The program, first piloted in Mesa County, allows approved counties and municipalities to certify businesses that meet a list of advanced COVID-19 protection measures beyond what is required. These Douglas County businesses, which can open under reduced-capacity restrictions, are called “Certified COVID Best Practices Business” once certified and have a certificate deeming them so inside their store.
Because the county was able to pre-certify businesses, 33 businesses were able to immediately open under these reduced restrictions. That included 18 restaurants, 14 gyms and one indoor event venue. More than 100 other businesses were in the process of being certified as of Dec. 23, according to a news release from the county. A list of the certified businesses can be found here.
Douglas County submitted its application to the state Dec. 18 in hopes of being one of the first counties permitted to begin Colorado’s new “5 Star State Certification Program.” The county was pre-approved for the program Dec. 21 with the contingency that the county needed one more day of declining hospitalizations on record to meet the state’s eligibility requirements for the program.
In order for level red counties, like Douglas County, to apply for the state program, they had to have two weeks of declining cases per 100,000 residents along with steady decreases in hospitalizations and in the positivity rate for COVID-19 tests. The positivity rate must also be below 10%, according to the state’s guidelines for the program.
Certified businesses are only able to open under reduced restrictions if and when they are approved by the county to do so. Any restaurants that open indoor dining before being certified could risk being unable to do so later, said Jennifer Ludwig, deputy director of Tri-County Health Department.
“I know businesses are really antsy to get open but they can’t open (under reduced restrictions) until we have approval and they’ve been certified,” Ludwig said.
Summit County was the first to apply for the program, according to the state spokesperson.
The county has a webpage that is accepting applications from businesses interested in the voluntary program. The site is available at douglas.co.us/certify-my-business.
“We are going to get this done,” County Commissioner Lora Thomas said in a Dec. 16 meeting about the program.
The program allows Douglas County businesses to move from their current level red status — the second most restrictive phase — back to orange, which allows restaurants to offer indoor dining service with 25% capacity or 50 people, gyms to have 25% capacity or 25 people, and indoor events to take place with 25% capacity or 50 people.
While any business can apply, the county plans to prioritize certifying restaurants and indoor event centers for approval, as they have taken the biggest hit in the most recent round of the state’s level red restrictions. The county was placed on that level after local COVID-19 data skyrocketed in November, which was the worst month yet for the pandemic, according to Tri-County Health Department. Level red bans indoor dining at restaurants, but allows for outdoor dining as well as takeout and delivery services.
After applying with the county, it could take up to seven days for businesses to be inspected for their certification, according to a county spokesperson.
The county’s municipalities, chambers of commerce, Tri-County Health Department, police chiefs, the sheriff’s office and the library district have all signed letters in support of the program.
Municipalities and county staff are in charge of completing the certification process of businesses in their jurisdiction, including on-site inspections of businesses. Tri-County has begun training those staff members in how to complete those steps.
“We may not have people who are normally trained to do this type of work but I do believe we will be able to provide enough information and confidence to go out and do this work,” Ludwig said. “It’s pretty straightforward, this checklist. We trust that restaurants and owners want to open and want to protect public health.”
While Tri-County staff members are not completing the certification process, they still follow up on complaints they receive about businesses not in compliance.
“We don’t have the capacity to be able to do on-site inspections for certification,” Ludwig said. “We are hyper-focused on other parts of the response.”
Municipalities, the county and Tri-County are also randomly following up with certified businesses to ensure they continue to follow the required protocol, Ludwig said.
“We hope that by slowly and methodically opening businesses and providing this reduced capacity, it will allow them to be open and allow patrons to visit places while not increasing transmission,” she said.
While the data appears to be improving and approved restaurants and other businesses can now loosen their capacity restrictions, it’s vital that residents continue to practice safety measures such as mask wearing, social distancing and reduced personal interactions, she said.
“We can’t let our guard down but we also understand the need for businesses to open,” Ludwig said. “These certified businesses will be leaders in the community and as long as they’re upholding those strict measures, we will all be upholding public health.”
Ludwig asks that Douglas County patrons respect the rules put in place for businesses so that they don’t lose their certifications.
“For customers who want to not follow the rules, that puts the restaurant in a bad predicament so it’s up to us as community members to do the right thing and help businesses stay open,” she said.
Commissioners, municipalities and other stakeholders are hopeful that by setting up this program as quickly as possible, they will be able to support local businesses in a particularly difficult time.
“We are going to save a lot of businesses that otherwise would have failed,” said Jason Gray, mayor of Castle Rock.
‘Live with what there is’
William Brinkerhoff, owner of Sierra and La Loma restaurants in Lone Tree and Castle Rock, respectively, is one of the business owners who was recently in the process of being pre-certified. He submitted both of his locations to the county’s web page and was waiting to hear from the City of Lone Tree and the Town of Castle Rock about their in-person inspections.
Brinkerhoff has been frustrated by the state’s recent limitations on restaurants and has seen revenue losses as a result.
“It’s grossly unfair,” he said. “We’re going to be fine, but I think of all the people who have a little shop.”
Brinkerhoff said he’s concerned about restaurants that won’t be able to provide 10 feet of distance between tables, which is one of the states’ requirements for the variance program.
“We just have to live with what there is,” he said. “It doesn’t do any good to complain about it.”