Arapahoe County to apply for '5 star' program to loosen COVID-19 business restrictions

New state rules could open indoor dining, allow higher capacity

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Arapahoe County planned to apply for a new Colorado program that allows 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.

“I think we need a couple more days of (lower virus statistics) — we're heading in the right direction,” Luc Hatlestad, a county spokesman, said on Dec. 18.

For counties in Colorado's level red of restrictions, such as Arapahoe, the program will allow businesses to operate at level orange restrictions — a shift that, most notably, will allow compliant restaurants to reopen indoor dining, with a 25% capacity limit.

Douglas County also planned to apply for the program. It's known as the “5 Star State Certification Program,” a new framework modeled after a system Mesa County has “pioneered and has successfully run since the summer,” according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Adams County was not yet eligible to apply the 5-star program as of Dec. 18, in part because of its local virus trends, according to Jennifer Ludwig, deputy director of Tri-County Health Department. That's the local health agency for Adams, Arapahoe and Douglas counties. By early January, Adams might be eligible as long as holiday gatherings don't set its progress back, Ludwig said.

The state began processing applications for the program on Dec. 18, but businesses aren't likely to be approved for expanded capacity or indoor dining until at least early January, a time frame that effectively lengthens the indoor dining shutdown for restaurants in level red counties — the Denver metro area and other regions — to roughly two months long. The shutdown began when level red, one step below a stay-at-home order, took effect on Nov. 20 in many counties.

The state public-health department hopes to review counties' 5-star program applications and respond within two to three days, according to a statement from the State Joint Information Center, which takes questions for the health department.

But Ludwig recalled that the time frame the state had provided is longer and could stretch.

“I would say we're hoping no more than 10 business days but potentially longer — it also depends on how many counties apply,” said Ludwig, adding that the holidays could push approval out further for some counties.

Once a county receives approval, businesses still need to apply for individual certification and have their buildings inspected. While she understands businesses are anxious to take advantage of the program, Ludwig said it's not entirely clear how long the certification process will take.

“Ideally, we'd love to be able to do it within seven business days, but it will depend on volume,” Ludwig said.

Getting to the end of the certification process for businesses will depend on how each county administers the program, according to the State Joint Information Center.

Hitting the mark

Arapahoe County has the necessary blessing from Tri-County Health to apply for the program, Hatlestad said.

In approved counties, businesses that follow the 5-star rules would generally be able to operate based on a level of Colorado's COVID-19 dial — the color-coded framework of restrictions counties must follow based on local virus trends — that is one notch less severe than the level the business would otherwise have to follow. For example, a business in a level-orange county could operate at level-yellow capacity restrictions.

Counties in levels blue, yellow and orange are eligible for the 5-star program as long as their virus statistics stay within the criteria for their respective levels, according to the state's application instructions. The criteria are a county's rate of new cases, its percent of tests that come back positive and its trend in hospitalizations.

But counties in level red must hit different marks. Those include:

• A two-week sustained decline in “incidence rate,” the rate of new cases.

• Test positivity under 10% or demonstrably improving over the past two weeks.

• Under 90% of intensive care unit, or ICU, beds in use, and steady or declining regional hospitalizations.

“If everything falls right into place, you're probably looking at an early January rollout of the program,” said Hatlestad, adding that it was unclear as of Dec. 18 how long it would take for inspections to certify each business.

The business community should know this is a voluntary and free program, Ludwig said.

“Anybody who's coming in and doing the inspection will not be charging,” Ludwig said. No one “should be paying for inspection. If they are, it's a scam.”

Restaurants, gyms and indoor events have been the hit hardest by level-red restrictions, so they'll likely be prioritized, but other businesses can apply for the new program too, Ludwig said.

What it takes for businesses

Holding up a business' end of the bargain means following stricter protocols for combating the coronavirus. Businesses that apply for the 5-star certification generally must implement daily symptom checks for employees, record customers' names and contact information to support contact-tracing efforts, and improve ventilation or opening windows or doors to maximize airflow, among other requirements.

Notably, a business must have “zero prior citations of noncompliance with public health orders,” the state's instructions say.

See the full list of requirements for different industries starting at the bottom of page 4 here.

Current requirements call for 6 feet between parties seated at different restaurant tables, and the 5-star program requires 10 feet between parties if the county is in level red. In level red, only people from the same household may sit together at a table, the instructions say.

Restaurants have been one of Tri-County Health's most prominent categories of complaints received for overcrowding and not adhering to social distancing, John Douglas, head of Tri-County Health, said in late November. Restaurants may be a key source of virus spread, Tri-County data on possible exposures to COVID-19 has suggested.

“For us, it's really about striking a good balance,” Ludwig said. “If this framework (includes) really strict criteria and (restaurants) are following it to the letter, then we are together hopefully creating a safe environment.”

Even if a county receives approval, the 5-star program could be suspended if a county sees a “significant rise in cases or hospitalizations,” the state's instructions say.

A suspension automatically occurs if the region reaches more than 90% of the county's, or the region's, ICU hospital capacity. See a map of regions here.

A business may only receive one warning for failing to comply with the 5-star program's rules. If noncompliance continues after a warning, the 5-star certification must be revoked, according to the state's fact sheet on the program.

If a county does not enforce that, the state public-health department will remove its approval of the “administrative committee,” the body each county must set up to oversee the 5-star program within the county.

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