The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is in the process of rolling out its new 5 Star State Certification Program to augment the existing color-coded COVID health and safety dial. The program would allow restaurants to apply for certification in order to do business one level up from the current color level of their county.
The City and County of Denver is currently under Level Red restrictions, which prohibit any indoor dining — but earning the 5 Star certification would allow a business to open at Level Orange rules, so a restaurant could seat diners indoors at 25 percent capacity (or a maximum of fifty people, whichever is lower).
The process to get the 5 Star program up and running is complicated, however. A county must first form an administrative committee (comprising specific community groups and government agencies), which then must apply to the state for a variance to allow the certification in that county. The CDPHE just started taking variance applications from counties on December 18 (Douglas County was one of the first to apply); once the state reviews and approves a variance request, businesses can apply to their county's committee to receive certification.
Since Denver hasn't even formed that 5 Star committee yet, it could be a while before any restaurants are certified in this city...and some business owners are worried that it might never happen. That's why Andrew Feinstein, CEO and managing partner of Tracks Nightclub and the Exdo Event Center (both at 36th and Walnut streets), just sent a letter to Denver City Council imploring its members to make sure the 5 Star program gets put to use in Denver. Feinstein says he decided to act now because he feared that several city council members were considering going against the proposal, and he wants to make sure the voice of business owners is heard.
Feinstein is a member of Mayor Michael Hancock's Economic Relief and Recovery Council, and says it's important to find "middle ground so that bars and restaurants can come back at a modest capacity" while maintaining safe procedures to minimize COVID danger for employees and customers.
"Simply put, every day our industry's doors remain closed is a day that countless people are closer to economic devastation for themselves and their families, including many of the most vulnerable members of our community who rely on restaurant and hospitality industry jobs," he writes in his letter to councilmembers.
"To have [the 5 Star program] killed right now, when bars and restaurants are hurting so much, would be disastrous," Feinstein explains, adding that the certification would allow his business and others like it to prove that they can be safe, while gaining the ability to do enough business to make it through the winter.
Operating at 25 percent capacity is far from ideal, but Feinstein says it could be enough to get through...and certainly better than nothing. In normal years, Track and Exdo don't function as restaurants, but this summer and fall they hosted Dinner Drag for small, socially distanced groups, as well as RiNo Eats and Rainbow Alley — outdoor food, drink and retail experiences that ended when cold weather set in.
Earning 5 Star certification would "keep people employed and keep the lights on — and keep hope alive," Feinstein says. "And hope is so important right now. In forty years of business, including the HIV/AIDS epidemic, this is the first time we've had to close our doors for business."
Feinstein says he understands that public health and safety is the number-one concern, but he notes that continued unemployment can lead to physical and mental health issues for members of the hospitality industry. "I don't envy our elected officials having to make these decisions, but I hope they understand the desperation people are experiencing, and how much harm desperation can do," he concludes.
Here's the letter Feinstein sent to Denver City Council on December 21:
Dear Denver City Councilpersons -
It has been brought to my attention that a few members of City Council are considering not supporting the City of Denver's application into the State's 5 Star Certification Program that will allow restaurants (and bars and venues operating as restaurants) to resume safe but modest indoor dining.
As a co-chair of Mayor Hancock's Economic Relief and Recovery Council (ERRC) for small and medium sized businesses as well as a member of the Mayor's ERRC Restaurant Entertainment Arts Culture and Hospitality (REACH) sub-committee alongside several of our city's most treasured and beloved small and independent business restaurateurs (all cc'd in addition to other ERRC members and restaurateurs), I find this news - if true - to be gravely disappointing and kindly ask all members of City Council to strongly support the City's efforts to apply for and begin implementation of the 5 Star Certification Program so that applying businesses can safely reopen immediately.
Simply put, every day our industry's doors remain closed is a day that countless people are closer to economic devastation for themselves and their families, including many of the most vulnerable members of our community who rely on restaurant and hospitality industry jobs. By way of example, pre-pandemic our Tracks Nightclub and EXDO Event Center employed over 75 people - many of whom are from our minority and LGBTQ communities - and yet today we employ only five people and are completely shut down from operating (we can't even host safe, socially-distanced "Dinner Drag" right now).
As I'm sure many of you know, our restaurant and hospitality industry has been absolutely decimated by the Covid-19 pandemic and despite being exceptionally vigilant in regards to compliance with all State and City regulations to help reduce the spread of the virus, our hospitality industry continues to be dealt onerous regulations making it virtually impossible to operate. Nevermind that the data points to restaurants as a de minimis source of the virus spread - especially as compared to private gatherings (where our industry cannot assist with the City's health department in "policing" people's behavior on-site, like we are accustomed to doing and trained for).
Since the pandemic began, Denver has lost over 100 restaurants and related hospitality operations to either permanent or temporary closings; costing thousands of jobs and the livelihoods of not only the operators, servers, chefs, bartenders and support staff but of all the individuals whose jobs are tied to the industry's supply chain. And that's in addition to the loss of sales and property tax collection that our City counts on to provide the services needed by the most vulnerable amongst us.
I recognize that it's a challenging balance (to say the least) to keep businesses afloat while managing a health crisis, but I believe the 5 Star Certification Program strikes that balance and therefore must be implemented.
Thank you in advance for your support in getting our restaurants open safely again. And if/when we can host "Dinner Drag" at Tracks thanks to the 5 Star Certification program, I'll save a seat for you!
To meet the 5 Star certification requirements, restaurants must submit a COVID-based health-and-safety plan showing specific practices above and beyond what has been the norm so far.
That includes ten feet of separation between tables instead of six feet, an employee symptom and exposure checklist moving from recommended to required, proof of HVAC and HEPA filtration improvements, and a clean record with no previous noncompliance citations.
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