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Colorado public health officials this week unveiled a new program to let participating counties offer restaurants and other businesses a path to expand their capacities beyond the limits set by their county’s color level on the COVID-19 restriction dial.

The new 5 Star State Certification Program “requires businesses certified through the program to implement safety measures beyond what is already required by public health orders and guidelines,” according to a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment news release.

“Depending on the county’s level and metrics, certified businesses may be eligible for less-restrictive capacity caps,” state health officials said.

For counties that meet the state’s requirements to participate, the program offers a framework to allow businesses that meet certain health and safety conditions to operate under less-restrictive rules.

For example, a county at Level Red — like Denver and the rest of the Front Range — could only patriciate after a two-week sustained drop in new infections and hospitalizations, along with a falling positivity rate.

Then, certified businesses would be allowed to operate under Level Orange’s capacity limits — meaning, in this case, that restaurants that had been forced to close indoor dining under Level Red could resume service inside at 25% capacity or up to 50 people.

To be considered, counties must set up committees to administer the program, and determine how they’ll fund its implementation — and can’t use “local public health dollars” to do that, according to the state’s plan. They must also determine how they’ll secure compliance and enforce rules, according to the state’s plan.

Businesses including restaurants and gyms that wish to be certified would need to implement measures such as conducting daily symptom and exposure checks of employees, recording their customers’ names and contact information for disease tracing purposes, and, in many cases, requiring all customers make reservations.

The head of the Colorado Restaurant Association, which has chapters throughout the state, released a statement Thursday criticizing the program, saying she feared the effort will fall short and that for many it is coming too late.

“We appreciate that the Five Star Program is another option to get restaurants open and increase capacity,” said Sonia Riggs, the association’s CEO, in a written statement. “However, we have a number of concerns: Counties must first apply with the state to be able to implement the program, and that process is cumbersome. The requirements of the program may be costly to counties that are already cash-strapped, and difficult to implement. We worry that as a result, this program will not be implemented fast enough to make a real difference in many places. Once implemented, restrictions on approved restaurants may be so burdensome that it won’t serve the goal of expanding capacity.”

The program, which is voluntary, was piloted in Mesa County and is now going statewide.

Eligibility and capacity levels are dependent on the county’s current COVID-19 dial level:

“If a county sees a significant rise in cases or hospitalizations, then the program may be suspended,” the health department said.

If a region reaches more than 90% of intensive care unit capacity in its hospitals, the suspension will be automatic.

The state health department received more than 980 public comments and engaged in multiple stakeholder meetings with local governments, local public health officials and business communities in formulating the program.

Applications from counties will be accepted starting Friday. On Thursday, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock announced that Denver will seek to participate in the program.

Morgen Harrington, co-owner of Grimm Brothers Brewhouse in Loveland, is part of a small-business coalition in Larimer County that worked with local officials there toward variances from state-ordered COVID-19 restrictions.

“With this program being very similar to our level of programming, it makes sense in terms of policy for small businesses,” Harrington said. “It’s great that we all seem to have come to the same conclusion, we need another option for handling the pandemic and keeping small businesses alive. This is a positive step.”

The Colorado Restaurant Association’s CEO stressed that she found the state’s program lacking.

“Restaurants are on the brink of devastation, and many have already closed permanently since Level Red restrictions went into place. We are out of time,” Riggs said. “The publicly available data does not show that restaurants are a significant culprit in the spread of COVID-19, and we continue to ask the state for the reasoning behind its decision making. The state needs to figure out a faster way to get these places open or get these folks enough cash to survive, or this industry is going to be completely gutted – and that would have devastating effects on our state and local economies.”

This content was originally published here.