As coronavirus continues to spread, is it the right time for a ‘5-star’ program across Colorado?

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Posted at 4:34 PM, Dec 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-11 20:58:08-05

DENVER — As the pandemic stretches into its ninth month, many Colorado counties and businesses are pushing for eased restrictions to allow businesses to reopen, if done safely.

Mesa County pioneered a ‘5-star program' originally as a list of open businesses taking precautions, that’s become a list of businesses allowed to remain open, in some cases under Level Orange restrictions, while the county as a whole is at Level Red on the state’s COVID-19 dial. Now, Larimer County is pushing for a similar program for the area, as some health professionals push back on the idea.

Larimer County wants to ‘Level Up’

Taking some cues from Mesa County’s 5-star program - officially known as the Variance Protection Program - Larimer County has pitched an idea of its own to the governor's office, calling it the ‘Level Up’ program.

MORE: Larimer County drafts Level Up pilot program to help business owners

The people behind the program say Level Up “would allow businesses operating at the highest levels of safety to open at a greater capacity.” That includes restaurants and other businesses, despite Larimer County being at Level Red restrictions.

“We have to learn how to live with COVID, protect our hospitals with suppression strategies, and mitigate the damage to our economy and to our businesses,” said Laury Levy, the county’s Pandemic Recovery Manager.

The idea of the program was presented to members of the governor’s office this week, but it has not been approved by the state yet. It has the backing of local chambers of commerce and county leadership.

Mesa County says 5-star program should go statewide

The one place in Colorado where these hyper-local variances are in effect is Mesa County. They implemented their program back in June, and with a new wave of restrictions as COVID-19 levels rise, it has evolved into a way of keeping businesses open even as the county deals with Level Red restrictions.

“We’re open. We can once again get back to what we’re passionate about,” a gym owner said in a promotional video on the Mesa County Department of Public Health’s website.

The program now has over 100 businesses taking part.

“Implementing that program allows our businesses to stay open because they’re a good partner and it’s a good, safe place to go,” executive director of Mesa County Public Health, Jeff Kuhr, said.

Kuhr says his county’s 5-star program is working, pointing to data showing low transmission at restaurants. He claims it strikes an appropriate balance between keeping the virus at bay and keeping the county’s economy running. He added that he believes a version of the program should, and will, expand across the state.

“We know right now the state is putting that program together. There have been some drafts of it that have gone out to local health officials,” he said. “I would love for this to go statewide.”

Medical professional warns against easing restrictions

But not all agree that this is the time to be easing restrictions, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread at an alarming rate.

“Half measures haven’t worked, they aren’t working now, and they won’t work,” Dr. Thomas Tsai, of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told Denver7.

Dr. Tsai believes that granting more variances now is going the wrong way.

“This reopening of high-risk bars and restaurants seems to be going in the opposite direction of the goal of controlling and suppressing the pandemic,” he said.