Businesses across El Paso County have a chance to increase their capacity under a new business certification program launched Tuesday.
The five-star program allows businesses in counties with high levels of coronavirus transmission to open at higher capacities if local officials inspect them to ensure they’re following new rules, such as placing tables farther apart and upgrading ventilation.
El Paso County submitted its application for the program on Jan. 1, but the state required additional documentation before it was approved, county spokesman Ryan Parsell said via email. According to the county’s application, an estimated 5,000 businesses — including more than 1,500 restaurants — could be eligible for the certification program.
“I wish it had come earlier, but I think it is important … we have the approval now and we are going to go forward,” El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf said at Tuesday’s county commissioners meeting.
El Paso County was moved down from Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial to the slightly less restrictive Level Orange on Jan. 4, easing limits across the county after Gov. Jared Polis announced a week earlier he was asking the state Department of Public Health and Environment to move Colorado counties that were in Level Red to Orange. Polis cited falling numbers of COVID-19 cases across the state and lowered percentages of ICU beds in use as the reason for his request.
The county continues to show a sustained decline in coronavirus cases and is down to about 265 cases per 100,000 residents over two weeks, from 1,343 cases per 100,000 people at the peak, county data show — well within the threshold for Level Orange.
On Tuesday, the countywide number of positive tests over a 14-day period was 6.64%, within the threshold for the even less restrictive Level Yellow, but greater than the 5% threshold recommended by the World Health Organization.
Additionally, hospitalizations have been decreasing since Dec. 10, with 71 coronavirus-related hospitalizations as of Tuesday. Of those, 67 were confirmed COVID-19 cases and four were under investigation.
Under Level Orange guidelines, restaurants and gyms can operate at a 25% capacity with a maximum capacity of 50. But those that complete an in-person inspection to become a five-star certified business will be permitted to operate at a 50% capacity with a maximum capacity of 50, County Public Health Director Susan Wheelan told the Board of Public Health last week.
Restaurant owners have shared mixed reactions about the program. Some have criticized its requirements, such as upgraded ventilation or spacing tables 10 feet apart, as too difficult or too expensive to comply with, The Gazette previously reported. Others have said they are excited to be able to have larger occupancies because it keeps their restaurants open and staff employed.
“We have heard from businesses that operating at (25%) is just not sustainable and that even when restrictions have been lifted from Level Red to Orange, it did not make sense for some to open,” Dirk Draper, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Center, said via email Tuesday. “We hope that the (five-star) program provides relief as businesses can operate at the next-lower level of restrictions on Colorado’s COVID-19 dial.”
Any business in the county will soon be able to apply for the program through a regional website the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Center will launch, Parsell said.
El Paso County commissioners on Tuesday awarded a $250,000 contract to SAFEbuilt to implement the five-star program locally and conduct the inspections.
El Paso County, the city of Colorado Springs and other local leaders have previously said the certification program would be difficult and costly to implement, in part because it requires officials to individually inspect businesses.
The program is voluntary so “(a) business can choose if the costs of the state’s program is right for the benefit the program will yield,” Parsell said.
The county is applying for state funding for the program, he said. El Paso County can apply for up to $50,000 from the state, according to its program webpage, “which can be used to support or strengthen an existing program or to plan and develop a new program.”
“We are acting absolutely as fast as we possibly can to go forward with this program despite the fact that we have some reservations about some of the content of the program itself,” VanderWerf said. “We are intending and will continue to do everything we possibly can to support our businesses and our industries.”