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Larimer County Approves More Than 100 Businesses For Level Up Program

Richard Ricchiuti
Staff of the Blue Agave Grill in Fort Collins receive a certificate welcoming them into Larimer County's new Level Up program. The initiative aims to help struggling local businesses by allowing them to operate at a lower level on the state's COVID-19 dial than the county's current status.

It was the moment Melissa Strong had been anticipating for weeks.

An inspector from the Larimer County Department of Public Health and Environment arrived at her restaurant Bird & Jim in Estes Park, tape measure in hand, and assessed the business for Level Up, a new county program aimed at loosening coronavirus restrictions.

He measured the distance between dining room tables (at least 10 feet apart), checked the restaurant’s thermometer (it worked) and, on Monday, gave her a passing grade.

Strong’s business wasn’t the only one. This week Bird & Jim, along with more than 100 other restaurants, gyms and movie theaters in Larimer County, gained the first round of approvals for the program, which allows businesses to operate at one level lower on the state’s COVID-19 dial than the county’s current status.

“We take this as a huge privilege,” Strong said. “We take it very seriously to be able to open when the county is at a high risk level.”

Because Larimer County is still in Level Red, certified businesses can now operate at Level Orange, which allows restaurants to open for indoor dining at 25% capacity or a maximum of 50 people. Last call is also pushed two hours later, from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.

Gyms can now open at 25% capacity or a maximum of 25 people indoors. That’s up from just 10% in Level Red.

Movie theaters are also allowed to reopen for a limited number of patrons.

To gain admission to Level Up, businesses must apply through the county’s public health department. An inspector will then visit the business to conduct a physical inspection of the space and walk business owners through the requirements. Those who are certified must display a special poster notifying customers of their participation in the program, collect customer information for contact tracing efforts and implement other safety measures designed to reduce spread of the coronavirus.

Supporters say it should help local businesses stay afloat amid constantly shifting state and local coronavirus regulations.

“This isn’t a program where we just want to open up businesses wide open and loosen restrictions,” said Laura Levy, pandemic recovery manager with the Larimer Recovery Collaborative, which helped design the program. “It's about increasing capacity through greater restrictions so that they're operating very safely.”

Robert Duran, regional manager for Blue Agave Grill, submitted plans for his Fort Collins location — and for three other Larimer County restaurants he helps operate — less than two hours after the Level Up application went live last week.

“This is a huge deal,” Duran said, noting that he would be able to rehire at least four furloughed staff members at each restaurant that gets approved. “Leveling up is a sense of security for our restaurants — but mostly for our staff — to get them back through the doors.”

Duran said that in order to meet program standards, the only significant changes he had to make to his restaurants’ existing plans were administrative — for instance, how they submitted contact tracing information to the county.

Public health remains top of mind, but “restaurants are not the main culprit (of coronavirus spread),” Duran said. He’s excited to see the “government make decisions based on data and science.”

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment began scaling up a statewide framework for local programs like Larimer’s after receiving blowback from the business community against its new Level Red coronavirus restrictions. CDPHE moved Larimer and dozens of other counties into Level Red in late November, where they remain today due to high case numbers.

The health department started accepting applications from counties in mid-December.

Prior to giving counties the green light, the state looked at data from a local “5-star” pilot program in Mesa County, which has approved hundreds of businesses for reopening since last summer.

As of late December, at least four communities across the state have moved forward with efforts to create their own business certification programs. Broomfield hopes to approve its first round of applicants for its “Back to Business” program by Jan. 8, according to the city and county’s website.

Jefferson County has also applied for permission to move forward with inspecting local restaurants, but is still waiting to hear back from the state.

Summit County, which was the first to receive the green light from the state’s health department, has so far approved hundreds of local businesses in Breckenridge, Dillon and Frisco for its 5-star program.

Since gaining entry to Larimer County’s Level Up program, Strong, the owner of Bird & Jim in Estes Park, said she had already seen daily sales rise by “three to four times” what they were under Level Red.

“We got approved at 4 o’clock (on Monday),” Strong said. “And I would say we were at capacity by 6.”

By Wednesday, Strong had sold out of indoor reservations for a four-course pairing meal she has planned for New Year’s Eve.

“I’d like to think that it’s only going to get easier from here on out,” she said.

I cover a wide range of issues within Colorado’s dynamic economy including energy, labor, housing, beer, marijuana, elections and other general assignment stories.
I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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