Arapahoe County received state approval to join the Five-Star Recovery Program on Dec. 30, allowing qualifying restaurants and other businesses to loosen their COVID-19 restrictions, just hours before a surprise announcement from Gov. Jared Polis ratcheting down restrictions.
The county became eligible to participate in the program after showing a prolonged decline in its COVID-19 infection and hospitalization numbers, according to a letter from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.
Approval means the county can now begin issuing waivers to qualifying businesses, allowing them to operate at a less-restrictive level than the county's status on the state's COVID-19 dial.
The county was at level red when word came in about the Five-Star program on Dec. 30, which meant all indoor dining was prohibited. Just hours later, however, Polis announced via a tweet that he was requesting CDPHE to move all counties at level red to level orange, which allows restaurants to operate at 25% indoor capacity and loosens restrictions on gyms, indoor events and other businesses.
In a followup news release, Arapahoe County officials clarified that the Five-Star Program certification remains valid after the rollback. It may permit qualifying businesses to operate at level yellow, allowing restaurants to operate at 50% capacity among other restrictions.
Arapahoe County was one of dozens of Colorado counties moved to level red in November and December amid a surge in COVID-19 cases.
To qualify, businesses must first submit an application to the county, detailing how they plan to adhere to a long list of COVID prevention protocols. Next, businesses must receive an on-site inspection by city or county inspectors to prove their plans are in place.
Enforcement will be on a complaint basis, according to county documents, relying on reports from staff or the public. Though the county's application to CDPHE had requested a three-strikes policy before a business' approval could be revoked, the state's plan allows just two verified violations before revocation.
The Tri-County Health Department, which is responsible for mandating adherence to health code restrictions, will seek to work with businesses to come into compliance rather than lose their certification, said Adam Anderson, the department's health data manager.
“There are a lot of rules, and everyone can't be perfect, but we're doing our best to keep everyone as safe as possible,” Anderson said. “I think this program provides good opportunities to help out and still take necessary precautions.”
Anderson said it's unclear how much of the late-fall surge in cases was attributable to restaurants.
“That's the million dollar question,” he said. “We often can't definitively say this case came from that restaurant. With all the resources in the world we'd do a case control study to parse out where that transmission occurred and begin to establish better statistics.”
Instead, Anderson said, public health experts have largely had to rely on guidance and studies from federal agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which have found a higher risk of virus exposure in restaurants and similar settings.
“Ultimately we're trying to reduce the amount of exposure that people have with their masks off, and unfortunately it's pretty difficult to eat with a mask on around other people.”
While data collected by the department shows that restaurants were the second-most commonly cited location visited by people infected with COVID-19 in the two weeks before testing positive, behind only small private gatherings, Anderson said that data remains very limited.
One problem is that many people refuse to work with contact tracers, Anderson said, and even those who do often can't remember every place they've been for the past two weeks.
“So what we have is a small snapshot,” he said. “We combine that with research about indoor settings with masks off and studies coming from the state and federal level to try to get a sense of the big picture.”
Nancy Sharpe, the chair of the Arapahoe County Board of Commissioners, praised the program, calling it an important step in assisting struggling businesses.
“Our business is supporting our businesses,” Sharpe said of the county commissioners. “We don't want them to fail. It's important to make sure people can stay employed. From a financial standpoint, it's important to the county to help keep our business and office space full.”
Sharpe said the county has gone to great lengths to support businesses in 2020 through grants from the federal CARES Act, and added county staff have not yet fully evaluated what further assistance will become available as part of a new federal relief package passed by Congress in December.
Sharpe said she was optimistic about the Five-Star program because it maintains an emphasis on adhering to COVID prevention protocols.
“The most significant thing we can do is keep people healthy,” she said. “We must continue to wear masks, wash our hands, and be safe with who we're around as the vaccines start to roll out. It will be months before most of us can get vaccinated. This is all part of the process of getting us back to a normal life.”
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