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Denver Approved for 5-Star Program, but Expect Delays

A New Year's portrait of Mayor Michael Hancock.EXPAND
A New Year's portrait of Mayor Michael Hancock.
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Denver has been given the okay to take part in Colorado's 5 Star State Certification Program, Mayor Michael Hancock announced during a January 14 press conference about the city's COVID-19 response. Being certified for the program allows qualifying restaurants and businesses to operate at Level Yellow capacity levels; they're currently stuck at Level Orange. However, Hancock and other officials say that pre-certification can't begin quite yet because the city needs to set up the proper infrastructure, and in any event, the restrictions will remain where they are until Denver achieves Level Orange case counts for a week. And right now, the number of infections is actually growing again following the recent holidays.

Assuming the numbers go down, Eric Hiraga, who directs Denver's Office of Economic Development & Opportunity, made it clear that putting a system in place to deal with what's expected to be high demand among restaurateurs and others for the 5 Star program is being fast-tracked.

During the press conference, Hancock addressed another concern: the threat of demonstrations at the State Capitol related to President-elect Joe Biden's January 20 inauguration. The FBI has identified January 16 through January 21 as the period when protests are likeliest to occur, Hancock said, stressing that the Denver Police Department is coordinating with state and local agencies to keep people safe. He emphasized that participants "cannot open-carry a weapon" and warned that "we will not tolerate violence or destruction of property." A modified schedule for employees working in buildings near the Capitol will be announced shortly, he noted, and he discouraged anyone from gathering in large groups in order to prevent a viral spike of the coronavirus — another worry stemming from demonstrations.

Hancock also discussed vaccines, and admitted to frustration about some aspects of the rollout. That's why he joined with other chief executives from around the country in addressing a letter to Biden asking for greater responsibility when it comes to distribution and prioritization, he said, so that vulnerable populations such as communities of color and people experiencing homelessness don't get the short end of the stick. In his view, the city will better be able to ensure an efficient process and prevent such folks from falling through the cracks.

Officials in Denver also plan to set up a series of vaccination sites in neighborhoods without easy access to hospitals or pharmacies, following a model that proved effective when it came to testing for the novel coronavirus. This approach, which will include the development of a website that will help people see where the vaccination sites most convenient to them are located, is moving forward, but it's not ready for launch, either.

Denver Department of Public Health and Environment Executive Director Bob McDonald and Denver Health's Dr. Judy Shlay spent part of their time in the spotlight emphasizing the safety of the vaccine and noting the importance of inoculations for as many people as possible. In McDonald's words, "There is no way that we are getting out of this pandemic unless a high percentage of our population is vaccinated. There's absolutely no way of getting back to some sense of normalcy."

Achieving this goal is still a long way off. By McDonald's estimate, about 3.5 percent of Denver residents have been vaccinated to date — above the pace for both the state and the nation. But that means well over 95 percent of the citizenry hasn't gotten even a first shot, and those who have won't achieve greater immunity until two weeks after receiving the second one. As a result, all of the speakers emphasized the importance of continuing to wear masks in public, to social distance, to sanitize and to avoid large gatherings to prevent another surge of the virus.

Questions during the Q&A that followed mainly focused on the 5-Star Program and vaccinations. But Hancock was also asked about the filing of a formal ethics complaint against him in relation to his decision to travel over the Thanksgiving holiday after encouraging city employees not to do so; he must make a formal response to the city's Board of Ethics over the matter.

At a previous news conference, Hancock was essentially monosyllabic on the subject, but his tone was less defensive this time around. "I understand why people were upset and disappointed by my decision," he conceded, adding that it was "unwise but not unethical" — and he expects the board to concur.

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