An effort led by local economic leaders to apply for and implement a state variance program allowing businesses greater operational freedom from COVID-19 restrictions will move forward with an aim to have it up and running as soon as Christmas.
Business Improvement District Executive Director Tim Walsworth said getting approval from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment for a variance from public health restrictions designed to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus by Dec. 25 will not be easy.
“It’s very ambitious. It’s going to be really hard. But we’re up to the challenge. And we’re going to figure out how we can meet it,” he said.
That time frame may be optimistic, as Brian Devine, San Juan Basin Public Health deputy incident commander, said the county does not yet meet metrics based on COVID-19 data to apply for the variance.
Economic leaders are working with members of the medical community, local governments, the tribes, SJBPH and other entities to form an “Administrative Committee” that would need to apply for the variance, called the 5-Star Certified Business Variance Program.
The Administrative Committee would be in charge of implementation and oversight of the program.
According to the CDPHE, the program requires businesses certified as 5-Star to implement certain safety measures beyond what is already required by public health orders and guidelines designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“This program is for responsible businesses that are following public health guidance, and going above and beyond to prioritize the health and safety of their staff and customers,” the CDPHE said in a news release.
Several metrics must be met by counties even before they apply for the 5-Star variance. Those restrictions include:
Counties must have a two-week sustained decline in positive COVID-19 cases.Counties must have a 10% or lower rate of positive tests.Counties must have fewer than 90% of ICU beds in use, and steady or declining regional hospitalizations.“La Plata County is seeing progress in declining case counts as a county. Positivity rates for COVID-19 testing are beginning to drop in the community, and hospitalizations are starting to decline,” Devine said in an email to The Durango Herald. “While La Plata County doesn’t meet the requirements to move forward with the 5-Star certification program, the county is on the right path and trends are aligned with being able to open in Level Orange restrictions, or via the 5-Star program with stricter requirements in place in Level Red.”
Walsworth said La Plata County looks good as far as the two-week decline in positive COVID-19 cases and the ratio of positive tests, but work must be done on meeting the ICU bed and hospitalization usage criteria.
Devine said: “SJBPH knows that many of our businesses are hanging by a thread and others have had to close. Our community has sacrificed so much to keep each other safe and we know how difficult that has been.”
As vaccinations become available, Devine said SJBPH remains concerned about increased cases especially related to winter holiday gatherings.
“If folks don’t gather over the holidays, and we don’t see a spike in new cases, it will give businesses in our county a chance to launch the program or open widely in Level Orange as long as cases and our percent positivity rate continue to decline and our hospitalizations (especially intensive care unit usage) begin to trend in the right direction,” he said.
Key to making the 5-Star program work in La Plata County, Walsworth said, is cooperation economic leaders have received from the city and the county to be able to enlist people working in code enforcement, building inspection and law enforcement to inspect businesses to ensure compliance with 5-Star standards.
“The ability to use people already familiar with code enforcement will allow us to more quickly get the program going whenever we get our approval from the state,” Walsworth said.
Later, after approval and implementation of the 5-Star program, Walsworth said the plan is to hire several people to assume the duties of 5-Star inspections, relieving the duties from other government inspectors temporarily borrowed to set up the variance program.
Durango Chamber of Commerce Director Jack Llewellyn said economic leaders are committed to be among the first in the state to apply for the 5-Star variance even if Christmas proves too optimistic.
“I hate to use the word, ‘dying,’ because people are dying from COVID-19, but so are businesses, especially restaurants,” Llewellyn said. “My take is that this will give us some hope that we can help prevent some businesses from dying.”