by Bill Knowles
TRINIDAD — Last Friday, the Las Animas County Commission met in a work session to begin looking at a possible statewide coalition. The coalition would aim to implement a program allowing for economic recovery for Colorado businesses while at the same time remaining in compliance with the state’s mandated emergency health orders and regulations.
The program is called the Five-Star Program, and is a joint effort of both Mesa County Public Health (MCPH) and the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. It is also known as the Variance Protection Program, and is encouraging area businesses to implement safety measures that will help slow the spread of COVID 19 locally and allow Mesa County to move forward with reopening efforts needed to help the local economy recover.
Colorado Counties Incorporated (CCI) is watching the Mesa County program closely and is looking to bring more counties into the fold, making the Five Star Program a joint effort across the state. The trick is that the program is eligible for counties in the green, yellow, and blue portions of the state’s COVID-19 dial— however both Las Animas County and Huerfano County are at red on the dial.
The red area of the dial brings with it restrictions on what businesses can be open and how many customers they can serve at any given time. It also calls for fewer employees on the job in person to maintain social distancing. The red level also calls for people to stay at home unless they have necessary business to conduct, such as a visit to the doctor’s office or grocery shopping. It requires anyone leaving the house to mask up. This restriction level hits restaurants especially hard, causing many restaurant owners to feel as though they are being singled out by the rules.
Darrel Phelan, owner of the Trinidad McDonald’s, when speaking with the county commission said that only 1% of transmission is coming through restaurants. “When looking at program like this (the Five-Star Program) why wasn’t this done earlier? We’ve been dealing with COVID-19 for a year now?”
Restaurants have a large amount of their business coming from tourists. “What businesses make today is what will be used to spend in January and February. With low transmission rate(s) why are restaurants being singled out?” Phelan said. He also noted that the new remodeling of the McDonald’s in Trinidad included new HVAC in the building. It barely met the standard required for keeping the interior building air vented properly to allow customers inside. “We…ask what has changed…since the summer? The only thing that has changed is the testing. Do we need this? It has really created its own mess with that. Now, they (Public Health) need negative tests to offset the positive tests,” Phelan told the county commission during the work session meeting.
The struggle to balance the economy and public health and safety has been the struggle since last March. With the current surge in COVID-19 infections and a tightening down on social gatherings restaurants are particularly vulnerable to permanent closures due lost revenues. Other businesses affected are gyms, bars, churches, and schools.
Hope on the horizon
However, the special session just completed by the state legislature has passed several bills designed to get some levels of financial help to businesses located in towns and cities with populations of 100,000 or fewer. The state help will total over $300 million. And the counties are moving forward on the Five-Star Variance Program, which would allow businesses to reopen under strict rules. In Mesa County alone, where the program began, over 600 businesses are involved with the program.
To certify for the program, businesses in Huerfano County and Las Animas County would have to abide by the following:
1. The business has a written plan about how they are:
a. Implementing or exceeding state prevention guidelines.
b. Implementing or exceeding local prevention.
c. Have a clear compliance and enforcement plan.
2. 100% mask wearing amongst staff and customers with strong compliance and enforcement protocols.
3. All employees do daily symptom checks or screening either with CDPHE symptom tracker tool or other approved protocol.
4. Regular outreach to employees and customers to activate Exposure Notifications.
5. Businesses must record the name and contact number of customers to be used for contact tracing should a case be traced back to that business.
6. Business complies with industry specific requirements including:
a. Restaurants – table spacing is at least 10 feet, and reservations are required.
b. Gyms – reservations are required.
c. Personal services – reservations are required.
d. Further industry specific requirements will continue to be developed.
7. Any business that has been cited for noncompliance with a public health order is ineligible to be certified.
How is it administered?
● Each county should set up an administrative committee responsible for implementing the program. The committee must include the local public health agency (LPHA) and may include other partners like the local chamber of commerce, nonprofits, or industry association members. If new resources are required to stand up this program, counties should demonstrate the new resources being made available to the LPHA.
● The administrative committee applies to CDPHE for approval to stand up the program by demonstrating that they have the capacity to run the program without detracting from other core response capabilities, like testing, contact tracing, or enforcement of state and local public health orders.
● The business completes a CDPHE webinar describing the rules, responsibilities, and requirements as well as basics of prevention.
● The business applies for certification through the administrative committee.
● CDPHE may remove approval for the administrative committee if they do not conduct compliance and enforcement.
Mesa County has a variance to operate its 5 Star Program for 12 days while in red on the dial. This pilot will provide needed data on if a 5 Star Program is compatible with suppression goals of the red level. This data will inform the state framework for when 5 Star businesses can operate for other counties.
What if cases rise in a community? When is the program suspended?
▪If a county reaches more than 90% of their county’s/RETAC hospital capacity.
▪If a county reaches red level metrics for more than a two week period.
The move to the Five-Star Variance Program is a controversial move at best with health officials saying it just treading water and at the worst could prove to allow the coronavirus to spread especially in counties under red-level restrictions. This is due mainly to lack of data that backs up its safety.
The Las Animas County Commission is seeking more local control over the situation, believing that the state can’t fully understand how vulnerable local businesses are to closures as the seasons’ advance moves deeper into the winter and the pandemic surges.
But until enough vaccine is manufactured and administered to a large enough group in the population, testing becomes more universal, and hospital patient count is reduced, the restrictions in one form or another, will be kept in place.