On Christmas Eve, La Plata County businesses received an early present from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment: approval for the 5-Star Certified Business Variance Program.
La Plata County was the fourth county in the state to be approved for the variance program, said Tim Walsworth, executive director of the Durango Business Improvement District and a member of the Administrative Committee for the La Plata County 5-Star State Certification Program. The program was piloted by Mesa County in the summer and adopted by the CDPHE on Dec. 18.
The immediate focus of the program is on restaurants. In Colorado’s framework for COVID-19 restrictions, La Plata County is at Level Red, which prohibits indoor dining at restaurants. If restaurants apply and receive 5-Star certification, though, they are eligible to open for indoor dining at 25% of their capacity.
To obtain the certification, restaurants must submit a written application online, which will then need to pass a thorough and detailed review. If the restaurant passes the test, an inspector will visit the business to verify it meets the program’s standards.
“When the inspector goes to the restaurant, he or she is expecting to see the restaurant set up conforming to the new rules,” Walsworth said. “We’re not at 6 feet anymore, we’re 10 feet apart. We’re looking for the specific station and set of forms that the employees get their daily screenings at. Customers are going to be asked if they’ve experienced any symptoms, if they have a fever – and where is that occurring? Where’s the checklist? That probably happens via the host, so where’s that person’s little script to ask those questions? We really want to see everything set up and ready to go.”
Inspectors will follow up with random, unannounced spot checks.
Every business that receives a 5-Star certification will also receive a sticker denoting its certification, which will be placed near the door handle at the entrance to the business.
To apply for the program, restaurants can email [email protected] to begin the process, Walsworth said.
As of Tuesday afternoon, 14 businesses had been certified. The first business in the county was Purgatory Resort, which opened Purgy’s Slopeside Restaurant; the first in downtown Durango was East by Southwest. Both reopened Saturday.
Other restaurants included: Applebee’s Grill & Bar; Durango Diner; El Moro Spirits & Tavern; Fired Up Pizzeria; Gazpacho New Mexican Cooking y Cantina; Jean Pierre Bakery, Cafe and Wine Bar; Ken and Sue’s; Lone Spur Cafe; Mi Ranchito Family Restaurant; Oscar’s Cafe; Switchback Taco Bar; and Yellow Carrot Restaurant.
Because of the extra requirements required for the certification process, namely the 10-foot distance between tables, Purgy’s can currently seat 44 people, down from the 50 it could seat when the county was at Level Orange, General Manager Dave Rathbun said. It can normally seat 323. Ironically, at 2 p.m. Saturday, the restaurant didn’t need that full capacity – only 11 diners were seated indoors, with another 300 outdoors across the resort.
“We’ve done such a great job training everybody to be outside, and the weather has been fabulous, so we haven’t had much demand,” he said Saturday.
By Tuesday, the resort had opened The Club, Hoody’s, Paradise pizza, Dante’s and Backside Bistro as well.
East by Southwest opened for indoor dining at 5 p.m. Saturday by reservation, said Hydi Verduzco, co-owner of the Asian fusion restaurant. Under the current restrictions, the restaurant can seat between 35 and 40 people.
She said the approval process for the certification was not unusually difficult.
“My husband and I have very strict sanitation requirements that we put on ourselves for running a restaurant of our style, and it was more of putting it down in writing and posting that information throughout the restaurant,” she said.
While the certification technically applies to both East by Southwest and its sister restaurant, Mama Silvia’s Italian Kitchen, Hydi Verduzco and her husband, chef-owner Sergio Verduzco, planned to keep the Italian restaurant serving food to-go and use its indoor space to supplement that of East by Southwest. She said East by Southwest would continue to serve food to-go as well.
The benefits of the certification program will change as the county moves into different COVID-19 levels as per the state’s metrics.
“Another way to think about what receiving the certification does, it allows the business to operate at a capacity limit that’s one level higher than where the community is because the business has been certified of going above and beyond on the health and safety requirements,” Walsworth said. “So right now, we’re (Level) Red, and so that gets them to 25%. If they pass all these tests when our community goes to Level Orange, restaurants will be allowed 25% capacity, but 5-Star-approved ones will be able to get to 50% when we reach that threshold.”
5-Star certification is expected to open up to non-restaurant businesses in the coming weeks, he said.
“We’re just excited to give restaurants a legal opportunity to operate,” said Dave Woodruff, general manager at El Moro Spirits and Tavern and president of the Durango Chapter of the Colorado Restaurant Association. “Twenty-five percent, while not perfect, gives us an opportunity. Hopefully, we can reach Orange metrics in the next week or two and start operating at 50%, and that’s doing a lot better than we are right now.”
The county’s approval by the CDPHE, however, is not permanent. The program and its certifications are contingent on the county’s COVID-19 statistics not taking a turn for the worse. If La Plata County sees a significant rise in cases, percent positivity or hospitalizations, the state will suspend the program. It is automatically suspended if the intensive care unit hospital capacity reaches 90% in the county or the region in which the county operates.
“After Thanksgiving, we didn’t see a big rise in cases around here. Our community did really good,” Walsworth said. “As you can imagine, we’re hoping for the same thing coming out of Christmas, so that we don’t reverse those numbers or we don’t reach that automatic revocation threshold on ICU beds.”
To submit the application for approval to CDPHE, La Plata County had to show a two-week sustained decline in positive COVID-19 cases, a 10% or lower rate of positive tests and less than 90% of ICU beds in use. In a Dec. 18 interview with The Durango Herald, Walsworth had said the county was having trouble meeting the ICU bed criteria.
The administrative committee submitted its application for the variance Dec. 20 and received the approval Thursday morning. In its response, the state noted that 68% of ICU beds in the Southwest region of Colorado were in use and there had been 13 days of declining or stable hospital admissions.
The committee began receiving applications from restaurants Thursday. The committee is looking to approve as many as 10 or more restaurants on a daily basis, as long as they can pass inspections, Walsworth said.
Inspections are currently being conducted by personnel on loan from the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office and the city of Durango who are well-versed in ensuring compliance with long lists of rules, he said. As applications slow down toward the end of January, the committee is expected to hire its own inspectors.
“There’s a lot that needs to happen on both the employee side and also the customer side,” Woodruff said. “Things are going to be a lot different than the last time we were open for dining. Being patient, being calm and being understanding as we’re still trying to work through all these processes. It’s our hope that we can get through it together. It’s just going to look a little different.”