Restaurants’ dining rooms, spas, gyms, outdoor guided services and offices in La Plata County are free to open up to 25% of capacity, as La Plata County moved to Level Orange, the “high risk” category on the state’s COVID-19 response dial framework.
The move on Monday still requires restaurants in the 5-Star Certified Business Variance Program to abide by other, tougher regulations.
However, being 5-Star certified holds the promise of within two weeks offering 50% indoor dining capacity even if the county as a whole hasn’t moved to Level Yellow, or the lower “concern” category.
“Level Orange does not change the requirements for face covering, employee symptom screening, etc. The only changes tied to levels of the dial for most businesses are operating capacities and hours,” Claire Ninde, spokeswoman for San Juan Basin Public Health, said in an email.
Under Level Orange, last call for alcohol moves from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m.
On Tuesday, La Plata County COVID-19 cases dropped to meet an adjusted COVID-19 positivity rate of 345 positive cases per 100,000 population, according to SJBPH. The threshold for this criterion to move organically to Level Orange is 14 consecutive days of the county reporting 350 or fewer positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population.
“The incidence rate (Tuesday) in La Plata County is 345/100k, the first day that it has dropped below the threshold in a while,” Ninde said in an email.
The incidence rate on Tuesday for Archuleta County was at 470 per 100,000 tests.
If La Plata County can sustain 350 or fewer positive tests per 100,000 population for 14 days, to enter Level Orange on its own merits, restaurants in the 5-Star program could increase indoor dining capacity to 50%.
Although La Plata County had not met the criteria to enter Level Orange on its own, it was allowed to move from Level Red to Level Orange after Gov. Jared Polis said enough progress statewide had been made to move 33 counties down one step on the state’s COVID-19 dial level framework.
Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District and a member of the Administrative Committee for the La Plata County 5-Star State Certification Program, said: “The governor’s announcement is really good for businesses across the board because it opens them up a little bit.
“The problem with it is that it’s created some conflict with the 5-Star program. The 5-Star program did a really good job and does a good job of balancing public health and economic health. Unfortunately, his announcement has just undermined the benefits of that program until we get to the, quote, unquote, ‘real’ Level Orange by the metrics.”
As of Tuesday, just shy of 50 restaurants had qualified for 5-Star certification, Walsworth said.
Restaurants can discontinue their 5-Star participation at any time, but must reapply to be recertified if they want to participate in the program in the future, Walsworth said.
The county has already met two other criteria for going to Level Orange: positive test rates must be 15% or less and hospitalizations for COVID-19 must be declining or stable.
To obtain the 5-Star certification, restaurants must go beyond the typical requirements to stay open during the pandemic, enforcing stricter measures, such as increased mask wearing and mandatory contact tracing.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has eased some 5-Star certification requirements to incentivize restaurants not to leave the program. For instance, the requirement that restaurants space tables 10 feet apart has been cut back to 6 feet. Similarly, 5-Star certified restaurants will no longer be required to verify that all diners in a party are from the same household.
But other increased 5-Star requirements remain in place, including:
Restaurants must ask customers if they’re feeling or have recently felt any symptoms of COVID-19.Restaurants must obtain the name and contact information of at least one member of a party for contact tracing.Restaurants must have written plans detailing their responses to certain situations, such as what will be done if an outbreak is detected at the restaurant.Restaurants must make efforts to improve ventilation in ways that combat the spread of the virus.Restaurants must promote the CO Exposure Notifications smartphone app.Despite moving to Level Orange, Ninde said SJBPH officials still have other concerns about COVID-19 transmissions in the county.
“We have seen a bump in out-of-jurisdiction, nonresident cases reflecting the impact of out-of-town travelers to our region over the holidays,” she said.
Additionally, she noted Colorado has identified cases of the variant strain of COVID-19.
“While we don’t know how long it has been circulating in Colorado, it is here now and there are estimates that it is 40 to 70% more contagious,” she said.
Ninde also said Level Orange is still categorized as “high risk” for transmission, which means challenges remain to protect older adults and to keep teachers and first responders healthy so schools and essential services run smoothly.
“It is up to us as a community to continue following crucial public health practices so that our children can safely learn in school and so that our economy can succeed,” she said.
Everyone, she said, should continue to practice these precautions:
Wear face masks.Practice social distancing, staying at least 6 feet apart.Avoid nonessential indoor spaces.Get tested if you are symptomatic, think you’ve been exposed, or if you work in a high-contact position.Avoid travel.Wash hands thoroughly.Get the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.[email protected]Herald Staff Writer Nick Gonzales contributed to this report.