Denver Back in Level Orange: Details of 5-Star Program Ramp-Up

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock showing off his Colorado pride.
Denver Mayor Michael Hancock showing off his Colorado pride.
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A lot of new information was dispensed during a January 27 City of Denver press conference about the ongoing battle against COVID-19.

Mayor Michael Hancock and a cadre of cohorts revealed that the city is officially back in Level Orange on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's dial dashboard. If that level can be maintained for seven days, restaurants, gyms and other businesses that meet the standards set by the state's 5-Star Certification Program will be able to operate under Level Yellow standards, which include increasing capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent, among other things.

Applications for the 5-Star program will officially open at 10 a.m. February 2, with a soft cap of 500 for the first round of participants. Eric Hiraga, executive director of the Denver Economic Development & Opportunity office, said that moving forward in stages is necessary because as many as 7,000 businesses in the city could qualify, and approval requires on-site visits and other time-consuming procedures. But he promised that officials will be carefully watching to make sure the process is fair to all industry categories, communities and neighborhoods, and that the city will be prepared to pivot if less well-heeled groups are disadvantaged.

Furthermore, Denver is reactivating its emergency operations center to oversee and coordinate the distribution of vaccines in the city. Hancock and Hiraga, as well as Denver Department of Public Health & Environment executive director Bob McDonald and Office of Emergency Management leader Matt Mueller, all repeatedly stressed that the process is founded on equity; the goal is to make sure that members of every demographic have the same opportunity to get shots in a timely manner. Hancock also stressed the safety of the vaccine and its availability at no charge, particularly in light of what he described as fraudulent efforts to scam those seventy and older (the current priority group) into paying to get medication that's actually free to them and everyone else.

According to Hancock and Hiraga, all potential applicants for the 5-Star program should visit a new website, Denver5Star.org, before February 2 in order to learn about all the requirements for taking part. They're also asked to watch the following video, which provides an overview of guidelines.

The site will provide information about three virtual town halls focusing on the 5-Star program. The first, scheduled at 6 p.m. on February 1, will be presented in Spanish, while the next two, at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on February 2, will be in English.

Hiraga called the opportunity for Denver businesses to become 5-Star certified "a game-changer," owing in part to grim new statistics: The city's labor department revealed that the unemployment rate increased from 7.2 percent in November to 9.3 percent in December. According to Hancock, that's similar to what he dealt with shortly after being elected as mayor in 2011, when Denver was still reeling from what subsequently became known as the Great Recession. As a result, he's asked his various economic experts to come up with creative and innovative ways to improve Denver's economy both in the short run and the long-term, since he predicted that the effects of the pandemic will be felt long after the crisis is over.

For his part, McDonald emphasized that Denver must continue to keep its two-week cumulative case incidence rate below 350 per 100,000 residents, the dividing line between Level Orange and Level Red, if the 5-Star program is to work. Moreover, dipping below 350 was only the first step; the numbers have to be no higher for the next six days in order for the state to approve the level change.

McDonald also revealed that vaccination teams have been assembled to go into homeless shelters and encampments and inoculate individuals on the spot. Some are already out in the field and more are expected to join them soon.

In closing, Hancock reiterated a request that he and other mayors around the country have made to the Biden administration to provide vaccine directly to cities, which now must go through states for supplies. Local governments have a better idea about how to get the medication to the most vulnerable populations in a quick and efficient manner, he explained: "We must treat the challenge of vaccine deployment with the same urgency as when the virus came upon us in March of last year."

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