Economic leaders in Durango are looking to piggyback on an effort that started in Mesa County that gives businesses, especially restaurants, more breathing room to operate if they follow strict guidelines to limit the spread of COVID-19.
The program, called the 5-Star Certification Program, requires businesses to comply with a host of measures to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. It also requires businesses to be open for inspection to assure authorities they are adhering to the standards.
In return, businesses would be able to use less restrictive standards to operate – for instance, businesses might be able to comply with Level Orange restrictions even if the county is in the more restrictive Level Red dial setting for slowing the spread of the virus.
Under the 5-Star Certification Program, which has been in operation in Mesa County since July, businesses must abide by protocols that:
Limit the number of people in the building.Arrange spaces and seating to comply with social distancing.Use frequent hand-washing and create sanitation stations.Monitor employees for symptoms of the virus.Frequently clean high-touch surfaces.Enforce mask-wearing for customers and employees.The Mesa County Health Department also inspects businesses to ensure they are in compliance with requirements in the 5-Star Certification Program. If a business is found not to be in compliance, it can be removed from the 5-Star program and lose its legal ability to operate under less restrictive public health measures.
A state review of the 5-Star regimen to see if it can be extended beyond Mesa County is expected to be completed later this week or early next week, said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
The chamber is looking to bring the program to La Plata County if the state OKs its use beyond Mesa County.
“We’re asking for increased capacity, so businesses have a chance to survive this,” Llewellyn said.
Jeff Kuhr, executive director of Mesa County Public Health, said the program largely started after the department noted only 10% to 12% of transmissions of the virus were occurring at Mesa County workplaces, but workplaces were suffering under the most severe restrictions.
“Why should we put the most onerous restrictions on businesses when workplaces account for only a small percentage of positive cases?” Kuhr said.
As of Wednesday, there were 26 active outbreaks in La Plata County. Of those, nine were at local restaurants.
The Durango Chamber of Commerce is working with the Business Improvement District and La Plata County Economic Development Alliance to pay the salary of an additional employee at San Juan Basin Public Health to administer and enforce the 5-Star program should it be adopted in La Plata County.
A key to successfully bringing the program to La Plata County is that it not take resources away from SJBPH, and that is why the economic groups are looking to support one employee who would be based at SJBPH to oversee the 5-Star program in the county.
The program has been allowed as a variance for Mesa County, and is sometimes referred to as the variance program. It is now under review by Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to see if it can be adopted by other counties.
“We are not far away from Christmas, and businesses are expecting a certain amount of sales,” Llewellyn said. “When I owned the Durango Olive Oil Co. with my wife, we were making, by far, more during this season, five, six times the business we were doing in other times of the year.”
Brian Devine, SJBPH environmental health director and deputy incident commander for COVID-19 response, said the agency would look at the 5-star program and how it might work in La Plata County if it is approved by CDPHE and the governor’s office.
It is too early to determine if the 5-Star program would work in La Plata County before seeing details of a state-approved program, he said.
Determining where a transmission actually occurred is only part of the equation, Devine said. Just as important he said is to limit the number of contacts people have, especially contacts that occur indoors among people who are not wearing masks.
Contact tracing in La Plata County, he said, shows that in the 14 days after contraction of the virus, the period when someone can develop symptoms, the most common behavior leading to person-to-person contacts is people going to work or volunteering in the workplace, such as nonprofits.
Additionally, he said data from La Plata County does not follow patterns seen in Mesa County with only 10% to 12% of transmissions coming in the workplace. Workplace transmissions are higher here, he said.
Devine also doubted that one employee would be sufficient to administer and inspect workplaces to ensure their compliance with 5-Star guidelines.
He said SJBPH already inspects restaurants for cleanliness and sanitation standards and that takes 3½ full-time employees. He noted there are 10 times as many business licenses for all sectors of the economy compared with only restaurants.
“I think for it to truly be successful, you would need to visit the establishments frequently, and you need to be able to go over their individualized plans and their layout and things like that,” he said. “With as many businesses as would be interested in a program like this, we would need quite a bit more than one staff to make it successful.”