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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Larimer County Restaurants, Bars Could Soon Reopen If State Approves New '5-Star' Program

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Matt Bloom
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KUNC
A restaurant in downtown Loveland advertises take out service on Dec. 2, 2020. Restaurants are currently barred from serving customers indoors due to local coronavirus restrictions.

Businesses forced to close indoor dining and other in-person activities under Larimer County’s Level Red coronavirus restrictions could be allowed to partially reopen—if a county program in development gains support from Gov. Jared Polis and state health officials.

Details are still in flux, but staff involved in planning say it would closely echo a pilot program already underway in Mesa County on Colorado’s western slope. The program awards “5-star” certifications to specific businesses that meet a strict set of COVID-19 safety requirements. The certification then grants businesses special permission to conduct activities otherwise prohibited under Level Red rules.

For example, restaurants would be allowed to seat customers indoors if they space tables 10 feet apart and require reservations. Other businesses, like gyms and nail and hair salons, could increase capacity if they stick to new guidelines. Businesses with previous health order violations would not be eligible for the program.

“We take the public health component of this very seriously,” said Jacob Castillo, who is helping craft the new program as director of the county’s Economic and Workforce Development Department. “The goal of this is to support both the public health efforts and create some economic opportunity for businesses in the region.”

The idea has garnered broad support from Northern Colorado state representatives, local chambers of commerce and Larimer County commissioners, who all say small businesses are being unfairly targeted in the state’s attempt to flatten a spike in new COVID-19 cases.

In an interview with KUNC’s Colorado Edition, Commissioner Steve Johnson said the county will make its pitch to Gov. Polis by the “end of next week.” Given the approaching holiday season, time is of the essence for many businesses, he added.

“Restaurants have not been a severe source of the problem in Larimer County,” he said. “We’re trying to make the case that we be given the chance to be another pilot county. We think it makes sense to have a Front Range county test it.”

Despite support from local officials, the county’s program is stuck in the planning phase until state officials give it the green light.

Gov. Polis so far has not signaled his position on Larimer’s 5-star program. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Polis referred KUNC to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which is currently reviewing data collected from Mesa County’s pilot program.

The agency says it’s taking public comment on the development of a statewide “5-star” framework through Friday of this week, with the goal of determining whether it’s safe to scale up the idea.

Larimer has been under Level Red restrictions on Colorado’s COVID-19 dial since Nov. 24, due to high daily case numbers and increasing hospital admissions. On Wednesday, the county logged 184 new COVID-19 cases. The same day, 75% of ICU beds in the county’s two largest hospital systems, UCHealth and Banner Health, were in use.

Average daily case numbers have been declining since mid-November, but health officials warn the risk of contracting the virus remains high.

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Larimer County Department of Health and Environment

Constantly changing coronavirus restrictions have left many small businesses in Northern Colorado confused and desperate for relief. In response to Larimer’s latest shift to Level Red, a group of nearly 100 Loveland businesses launched a peaceful protest, pledging to remain open at Level Yellow restrictions, which allow in-person dining and greater capacity at gyms and retail shops.

Morgen Harrington, chief financial officer of Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland and part of the group, said she supports the idea of a 5-star program in Larimer County.

“We just want rules that make sense,” Harrington said. “We want guidelines that keep us from going under, but also keep everybody safe from COVID and so this is our cry for help.”

Harrington said her businesses’ situation is dire. On Monday, after defying the state’s Level Red rules for several days, Harrington said she received a threat from Colorado’s Liquor Enforcement Division. The agency is considering revoking her manufacturing license, she said, which means her brewery may have to stop producing beer.

She’s optimistic more relief is on the way, though. Colorado lawmakers wrapped up a special session this week, promising tens of millions of dollars in aid to local restaurants hurt by coronavirus restrictions.

Ahead of submitting their 5-star plan to the state, Larimer County staff have been holding listening sessions along with local chambers of commerce.

An advisory group of businesses from Fort Collins, Loveland and other communities in Northern Colorado plans to meet on Thursday to finish a draft. Once finalized, the pitch will go in front of the county commissioners early next week. They will then decide how to approach Gov. Polis with the idea.

Due to the lack of precedent for this kind of solution, the ultimate path to implementation could change in the coming days, said Castillo, the county’s workforce development director.

“This is not a done deal,” Castillo said. “But we want the community to know we’re working on this very, very quickly and very thoroughly.”

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