MESA COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — As crippling COVID restrictions tighten across Colorado, the nagging thought on the minds of business owners remains: how long can they keep their doors open and workers employed?
A solution for businesses willing to go above and beyond, and play by the rules of best COVID practices has been a success in Mesa County since the summer, and could soon be used as a template statewide.
“We would rather be open under safe conditions than not, you know, to allow people to open up and not follow rules at all,” said Executive Director of Mesa County Public Health Eric Kurh.
Mesa County’s Variance Protection Program, commonly referred to as its 5-Star Program, started as a COVID Yelp of sorts for businesses that get a stamp of approval from the health department for best practices. The program is voluntary, and a way for residents to know which businesses are playing by the rules in the eyes of the county.
“I want them to feel safe going to the businesses listed on that directory,” Kurh said.
But now the concept has evolved. In the summer when the program kicked off, there were few restrictions in Mesa County. Now that Mesa and dozens of Colorado counties have turned to “Level Red” restrictions, the county made the case that 5-Star businesses should still be able to operate with limitations, instead of having to shut down entirely.
“You just can’t shut down all the businesses because there are other indirect health consequences with putting people out of work,” Kurh said.
The county checks in on businesses, providing a checklist of expectations for everything from mask wearing to cleaning practices and spacing for capacity. If there are complaints, the county investigates, and that could impact the business’ rating with the program.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has submitted a draft framework of what the program could look like on a state level. It is currently accepting feedback on how it should look.
The concept has metro Denver businesses excited, as restaurants are struggling week by week with only takeout as a sensible option with outdoor dining a non-factor for some in winter weather.
“We are 100 percent willing. We will jump through the hoops,” said Heather Morrison, the owner of Restaurant Olivia in Denver’s Wash Park neighborhood. “We would love to be able to welcome some guests back to our dining room, even if it’s the super-limited 25 percent.”
The state will publish its plan for a 5-Star program on Dec. 14.