State approves Five Star program in Arapahoe County, potentially easing regulations for some businesses

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AURORA | Despite a grim picture and clamped-down restrictions due to the pandemic in Aurora, diners and patrons may soon return to some restaurants and gyms in Arapahoe County under a new program that won approval Wednesday from the state health department.  

Arapahoe County is the latest jurisdiction approved by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to roll out its Five-Star Recovery Partner Program, which allows businesses to implement extra COVID-19 protections and win special exemptions to the usual rules, including the current ban on in-person dining. 

With the state’s approval in tow — and declining virus trends — county officials anticipate that businesses can begin applying as early as Dec. 31. Inspections will start Jan. 4. 

All types of eligible businesses in Arapahoe County are able to apply for the special certifications, but officials said they will prioritize applications from restaurants, gyms and indoor events centers. Businesses who have already flouted COVID-19 restrictions can’t apply. 

The special rules will allow some indoor dining in restaurants and require businesses to record customers’ names for contact tracing efforts. A similar program first debuted in Douglas County, which includes parts of south Aurora. 

But if virus trends worsen, CDPHE could yank the program entirely within two weeks. The program depends on keeping key metrics, including hospitalizations because of COVID-19, declining. 

If Arapahoe County remains in the red zone of the state’s COVID-19 restriction dial, the relaxed rules in Five-Star certified restaurants would include: 

  • Indoor dining with 25% capacity, but only 50 people maximum allowed indoors. 
  • Moving tables from the current requirement of at least six feet apart to ten feet apart
  • Improved air flow indoors, whether from opened windows or ventilation systems. 

Restaurants without the Five-Star certification will have to abide by rules determined by the Stay at Home dial, which is currently set to Red in Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties.

Gyms, event centers and general businesses would have to abide by many of the same requirements, along with requiring patrons to make a reservation for a workout. 

With the certification, both restaurants and gyms will also have to record names of patrons for health department contact tracing efforts during outbreaks. Staff must monitor employees for possible virus exposures and symptoms on a daily basis. These go beyond the normal rules. 

Patrons and employees will still be required to wear masks — including when speaking to a waiter at a restaurant — and social distance. And all participating businesses must publicly post contact information for the state health department, so customers can call and complain if staff aren’t following rules. 

Officials have touted the Five-Star program statewide as a way for some struggling businesses to survive while limiting viral spread during a brutal year plagued by outbreaks and limitations. 

Sonia Riggs, chief executive officer of the Colorado Restaurant Association, said she expects that restaurants will apply. 

But she said that the program is probably too burdensome with its many requirements and application process. “We worry that as a result, this program will not be implemented fast enough to make a real difference in many places,” Riggs said. 

The Restaurant Association has claimed that restaurants haven’t significantly contributed to outbreaks, although it’s unclear exactly how much restaurants and gyms have impacted viral spread in Aurora. 

The Tri-County Health Department’s contact tracing data listed eateries second among a list of common places people who tested positive for the virus reported going between Sept. 29 through Dec. 1.

Notably, Aurora’s In-N-Out Burger was declared an outbreak among employees Dec. 17, even though the wildly popular restaurant served customers mostly in drive-through lanes. 

Douglas County quickly approved 33 businesses under its Five-Star program after CDPHE approved its Five-Star program last week. That lot included 18 restaurants and 15 gyms or fitness centers. 

Counties across Colorado, including Denver, are also expected to roll out similar programs. Adams County officials have yet to announce whether they’ll roll out a program there. 

The rules for certified businesses would also become more relaxed if virus case counts land Arapahoe County back in orange territory on the state’s COVID-19 dial. Then, restaurants could fill their space to 50% capacity with a maximum of 100 indoor diners. 

Instances of new COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County region have somewhat declined during December after a November peak, but incidence rates — which measure the number of people with the virus during a two-week period — remain high. Health officials continue to warn of a “surge on surge” slamming the region’s hospitals after the holidays. 

Earlier this month, Mayor Mike Coffman and council members Francoise Bergan, Marsha Berzins, Dave Gruber and Curtis Gardner asked Gov. Jared Polis to allow some indoor dining during the winter. 

Berzins, who represents Aurora’s Ward III in Arapahoe County, said Wednesday she was happy to see Arapahoe County roll out the Five-Star program. But she said businesses have long been struggling under tightened rules and that officials should quickly approve applications. 

“Now is better than later. So, I hope they can get it done quickly so people can get back to work and businesses can reopen and stay open, if they are open now,” Berzins said. 

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