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Will Denver’s 5 Star Certification Program Save Local Restaurants?

The business-variance program could begin pre-certifying area eateries as soon as the first week of February—but increased indoor capacity will have to wait until pandemic metrics go down.

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350 for seven days. That’s the magic marker that restaurateurs across Denver County are waiting for, the indicator that the county’s COVID-19 two-week incidence level is low enough, and has remained low enough for seven consecutive days, that they can officially apply for the Denver 5 Star Certification Program—and increase the number of guests allowed inside their restaurant dining rooms.

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment (CDPHE) program, which is already in effect in Summit, Arapahoe, Mesa, and Larimer counties, among others, will affect restaurants, retail, gyms and fitness centers, personal services, indoor events spaces, and more, holding those businesses that apply to even more stringent health and safety protocols than current public health orders and guidelines require to slow the spread of COVID-19.

In doing so, those businesses will receive a variance from the City and County which allows them to operate under one less-restrictive level on the state’s pandemic dial; certified restaurants in counties under Level Orange restrictions (25 percent indoor dining capacity; 10 p.m. last call) can open under Level Yellow parameters (50 percent indoor capacity; 11 p.m. last call), those in Level Yellow areas can open in Level Blue, and so on. Denver received approval to implement the program on January 14, but until there is a two-week incidence level below 350, the Denver 5 Star Program cannot fully certify any businesses. Pre-certification staffing, procedures, and training are in the works.

Created, funded, and administered as a public-private partnership between the City and County of Denver, Visit Denver, H2 Manufacturing Solutions, Mile High United Way, and others, the 5 Star Program could be a lifeline for Denver’s struggling small businesses, including those that make up the local hospitality industry. It’s an industry in peril, from Denver to Detroit and beyond; the National Restaurant Association reported this week that restaurant and foodservice sales fell by $240 billion in 2020, with more than 110,000 restaurants across the country closed at least temporarily. Across the Front Range, hundreds of restaurants and bars have closed since March 2020, and more than 65,000 hospitality jobs have been lost.

Will the 5 Star Program do enough to help keep Denver’s local independent restaurants afloat when it does come to fruition? The answer depends on who you ask.

Eric Hiraga, executive director of the Denver Office of Economic Development & Opportunity (OED), is thrilled that the program is underway, and reports that his staff is working with Visit Denver and H2 Manufacturing to hire audit inspectors, cull volunteers, undergo training, work with area groups to spread the word about the program, and develop the city’s 5 Star website in preparation for launching applications for pre-certification during the first week of February. “The challenge for Denver lies in the fact that we are the big city, and we have so many businesses that would quality for this program,” Hiraga says. “We’re working on deploying this in the right way—and in a very safe way—that will allow businesses to get back on their feet at a greater capacity and get our residents back to work.”

For Matt Vawter, chef-owner of one-month-old Rootstalk in Breckenridge, the Summit County 5 Star process—which focused on certifying restaurants only and was the first to receive approval in Colorado—was simple and efficient. The county approved more than 130 restaurants in about three days. “It was a quick process and the County and Town clearly laid out what was expected of us,” Vawter says.

In fact, the zero-fee Summit County process took just three days to complete, from application to inspection to certification. “We had already upgraded the HVAC system, which was the biggest cost we incurred. And to be perfectly honest, we were already doing everything, like keeping track of guests. We had to move tables to 10 feet apart [a Level Red restriction], but that’s what feels better for our staff and guests right now anyway,” Vawter says.

Hiraga estimates that there are 7,000 businesses in Denver that qualify for 5 Star certification, and he can only guess as to how many will apply. “Possibly thousands of businesses may apply,” he says, “and to do this safely, there need to be on-site inspections. There’s going to be some time and sweat involved in this work.” Hiraga anticipates having at least 60 inspectors in the field, some of whom are already in training so they can begin pre-certifying restaurants and other businesses quickly. That way, when the relevant COVID-19 metrics are where they need to be, the program can go into effect right away.

Denver county application fees are still to be finalized, but Hiraga says that they should range from $25 (for a small business bringing in less than $1 million annually) to up to $150 for larger organizations. OED and Visit Denver are also working together to create marketing around the 5 Star Program, including a website listing of certified businesses and window decals, to increase confidence among diners and communicate the high-level safety standards that the 5 Star certification requires.

OED is also reaching out to local support organizations, including Mi Casa Resource Center, as well as area Business Improvement Districts, from Little Saigon to East Colfax, to ensure that BIPOC- and immigrant-led restaurants are prepared and trained for the application process.

“It’s been powerful to see all these groups come together like never before,” says Katie Lazor, executive director of restaurant advocacy group EatDenver and a member of the 5 Star Program outreach committee. “The city is keeping neighborhood leaders engaged and planning a town hall before they launch the application portal to open these applications as equitably as possible. That should help limit the competition for first come, first serve, which is how everything else has gone during this pandemic.”

Mark Dym, who co-owns Marco’s Coal Fired pizzeria in the Ballpark neighborhood of Denver and in Englewood with his wife Kristy, says that the 5 Star application process in Arapahoe County went very smoothly. “We’ve been so diligent that most of the 5 Star processes for us are the same,” he says. “We added more signage and are asking people about symptoms and to check in for contact tracing purposes. Being certified is like insurance for us: No matter what level the dial is on, we can stay at one level below. It gives our guests and staff comfort, too, and shows that we care about them.” When asked if Dym would apply for certification for his Ballpark restaurant, he responded that he’s ready to go as soon as Denver is.

Super Mega Bien and Work & Class chef-owner Dana Rodriguez feels otherwise. She and partners Tony Maciag and Tabatha Knop closed their two RiNo restaurants in mid-December, and the potential indoor seating increase in the coming weeks and months isn’t enough for the group to reopen until later in the spring. “We’re way too small,” Rodriguez says. “If we can’t have a line out the door and full capacity, it’s smartest for us to remain closed until we have better guidance, the vaccine, and can be in an open space where people feel more safe.” She hopes to reopen her existing restaurants for patio dining and takeout, as well as her under-construction LoHi cantina, sometime in early May.

Safety is, of course, the most crucial factor for the 5 Star Program and its certified businesses. As pre-certifications commence, the Denver Department of Public Health & Environment (DDPHE) is cross-checking all 5 Star applications against prior COVID-19 health and safety citations. Hiraga isn’t yet sure what the consequences will be for previous violations.

“There are some in-between circumstance to consider,” he says. “If there was a warning or a notice because an employee wasn’t wearing a mask, but that person is no longer employed there, should the owner be punished? We’re looking at hopefully 1,000 different little nuances to this program. There will be a lot of considerations and a little bit of gray area we’ll have to work out.”

There will also be a complaint portal through which business owners not adhering to the proper 5 Star guidelines will be held to account; the program’s administrative committee will assess each complaint on a case-by-case basis to determine the appropriate penalty, which could possibly include revocation of certification.

“Anything that can help restore people’s confidence in the safety of restaurants, and anything that shows the protocols they’re actively following, can only help,” says Lazor of EatDenver. “This program is here for the medium- to long-term as we shift back and forth in our dial levels and hopefully continue to reopen more and more. Combined with the new round of federal PPP funding, the extension of the patio dining program, and various grants and sales tax relief, it all works together to help save restaurants. No one program is doing it all, but together they move the needle.”

The Year That Changed Everything

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