Summit County is the first to launch a new state program that allows restaurants to expand indoor dining

Within 24 hours of Colorado announcing a new path to reopening restaurants to indoor diners, Summit County deployed newly minted inspectors throughout its mountain towns to make sure tables were 10 feet apart, registration sheets were ready to go and ventilation systems were pumping fresh air through buildings.

“Things have been gone through with a finer-tooth comb now,” Matt Vawter, who owns Rootstalk in Breckenridge, said of the process to reopen indoor dining in a county where it had been barred under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions. “The guidelines were laid out efficiently, and it was pretty well understood by everybody what you had to get done in order to qualify.”

By Monday morning, 134 restaurants in Summit County were approved to reopen their indoor dining areas under new — but more rigorous — guidelines created through the state’s Five Star State Certification Program.

The star rating has nothing to do with food quality but everything to do with making it a little safer to eat at a restaurant or work out in a gym without catching the novel coronavirus. While it’s impossible to make dining out 100% safe, Colorado’s new program improves the odds, according to at least one health expert who reviewed the new rules.

Under the Five Star program, businesses that add safety measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 that go beyond their county’s current public health requirements — such as spacing tables 10 feet apart rather than six — can apply to have restrictions eased.

In a county at Level Red on the state’s color-coded dial, which includes Denver and the rest of the Front Range, that means qualifying restaurants can be allowed to reopen indoor dining at 25% capacity. Restaurants in counties at lower color levels can increase their dining capacities through the program.

First, though, counties must apply to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to participate in the Five Star program, and show they can put together a process for inspecting businesses, monitoring data and enforcing compliance. If a county application is approved and certain public health benchmarks are met, then businesses can apply.

The Colorado Restaurant Association has been critical of the program, saying Gov. Jared Polis hasn’t moved fast enough to reopen dining rooms as the industry struggles to survive. Two members of the Colorado COVID-19 Modeling Team, on the other hand, have publicly called for indoor dining to remain closed, saying such restrictions are “a crucial lever for reducing COVID-19 deaths and illness.”

Colorado rolled out the Five Star program — which mostly impacts restaurants and gyms — on Thursday, but Summit is the only county where the application has been approved and where public health thresholds have been met. Douglas County’s application is tentatively approved, but hospitalization rates have not reached the benchmark necessary for restaurants and gyms to move to expanded capacity.

Statewide, only three other counties have filed applications, although the Department of Public Health and Environment would not identify them.

In a Friday news release, Larimer County announced it had applied for a variance. Denver, which has thousands of restaurants and gyms, won’t apply until early January, said Bob McDonald, executive director of the Denver Department of Public Health and Environment. And a Boulder County representative said it would wait as well.

Taking more precautions

The state Five Star program is modeled after a system set up earlier this fall in Mesa County, and officials in Summit and Douglas counties said they watched what happened there and started putting their models in place before the state finalized its plan.

In Summit County, solid baseline protocols already were in place, County Manager Scott Vargo said.

“The biggest game changer for us was all of our towns jumped into the fray with us,” he said.

Breckenridge, Frisco, Silverthorne and Dillon agreed to operate under the same plan as unincorporated areas of the county. The county knew what the state was proposing on Wednesday and by Thursday had trained about 60 people from all five governments to help inspect the restaurants. That meant people who normally work in other jobs, such as building inspectors, were checking restaurants for compliance with the new COVID-19 prevention guidelines and administrative clerks from across local government were handling the paperwork and scheduling on-site visits, Vargo said.

Some requirements — such as keeping a log of restaurant visitors for contact-tracing purposes — were easy to meet, he said. But some restaurants needed help upgrading their air filters, fans and heating and cooling systems.

“That was the most difficult part — the ventilation,” Vargo said.

Rootstalk, for example, was able to become certified quickly, Vawter said, because he and his staff already were largely in compliance. The restaurant screens employees daily for symptoms, uses approved chemicals for sanitizing, tracks cleaning schedules, keeps a list of diners and their contact information, and replaces air filters and purifiers.

“The big challenge is the 10 feet separating parties,” Vawter said, “and that’s just laying out the dining room appropriately.”

And while Rootstalk is one of 134 Summit County restaurants approved for indoor dining, Vawter doesn’t think the process was rushed.

“Everyone’s taking it very seriously and putting their best foot forward,” he said. “Everyone wanted to get open, but I know that everyone wants to stay open and be safe in doing so. The last thing I want is my staff to get sick or a guest to get sick while they’re here at the restaurant.”

Summit County officials believed it was crucial to get restaurants back in business because so many people visit the county to ski over the Christmas holidays, and restaurants are a critical piece of the tourism economy, Vargo said.

“We don’t think we cut corners,” he said.

Waiting to apply

In Douglas County, 121 businesses were somewhere along the application process as of noon Tuesday, according to an email from Wendy Holmes, the county spokeswoman. Of those, 20 already are pre-certified to reopen indoor dining, the email said.

Under the state’s Five Star rules, a county’s hospitalizations must show 10 days of sustained decline. Douglas County was at nine days on Tuesday, said Jennifer Ludwig, deputy director of the Tri-County Health Department. If Wednesday proves to be the 10th day, then the 20 businesses that have been pre-certified will have the green light to expand indoor capacity, she said.

As for Denver, the holidays and the enormous task of figuring out the logistics of certifying thousands of businesses will take time, McDonald said.

“We’re not going to do it blindly and certify businesses of all types and see our case numbers go up,” McDonald said.

McDonald estimated it would be another couple of weeks before Denver submits an application, and there’s no way to predict how long it will take for the state to review and approve the application. The city health department also would delay filing its application if COVID-19 case numbers rise after the Christmas and New Years holidays, he said.

John Tayer, president and CEO of Boulder Chamber, said Boulder County isn’t eligible to apply, based on virus case numbers, so there’s time to be thoughtful on how the Five Star program would work. Still, there’s no definitive timeline.

“Sometime in January, and there’s no certainty around that, as there is no certainty around the course of the virus,” he said.

Judging the risk

While counties are moving to participate in the Five Star program, there’s no guarantee it will be a long-lasting fix for struggling restaurants and gyms. If a county’s case numbers and hospitalizations rise, a program can be revoked. And individual business certifications can be suspended for violations, Ludwig said.

“We’ve had people ask, ‘How can you do this? What if case numbers go up?’” McDonald said. “Well, if case numbers go up, we revoke the program. Implementing it doesn’t mean we are stuck in it.”

At the end of the day, people must realize that eating out is never going to be completely safe during the pandemic, said Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease professor at the University of Michigan School of Medicine.

After reviewing the rules for Colorado’s new Five Star program, Malani said it appears to provide a path for restaurants to reduce the virus’ spread. It’s fair to question exactly how thorough the restaurant inspections were and how closely they will be monitored afterward, she said.

“Those are the kind of questions people need to ask,” she said. “Is it something someone just signed off on?”

And people need to understand a certification does not guarantee they won’t catch the virus while dining out.

“If you sit down to dine with people who are not in your household, you’re taking on their risks, too,” Malani said. “The restaurant can do everything to keep you safe, but who you dine with is the biggest decision you make.”

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