Five-star distinction would make Colorado’s restaurants, businesses more open

Pitkin County officials considering state’s fast-growing concept

Restaurants and hotels enjoy the bragging rights that go with a five-star rating, but in the pandemic world of dials, phases, zones, colors and metrics, earning five stars will mean something entirely different.

Pitkin County is considering participating in the state’s five-star certification program, a concept in its infancy but growing fast. Businesses achieving five-star status would face fewer and less harsh restrictions because they would be operating a color level down on the current COVID-19 dial. In some instances, certified restaurants could serve indoor diners if only outdoor dining were allowed under public health guidelines, or gyms could be open at a higher capacity restriction than allowed.

In a virtual talk hosted by the Aspen Chamber Resort Association — which has been putting on outreach meetings with different sectors during the pandemic — business operators said they were mostly in favor of the five-star program if it’s the difference between being open and closed.

“The bottom line is, we have to do whatever it is to stay open,” said Aspen restaurateur Jimmy Yeager.

And for the most part, businesses in Pitkin County are already doing what the state would ask of them to get five stars. That includes submitting a business safety plan, something the county has had in place since May.

There are some differences, however, and hospitality people said they are significant. Among them is keeping dining tables at least 10 feet apart; currently 6 feet is the rule.

Many restaurants could not operate under the 10-feet restriction, Yeager said.

“The 10-feet table (rule) is punitive and it punishes certain restaurants over others,” he said, arguing that some eateries would skirt the rules but still stay open, while obedient restaurants would be hurt by the new distance.

Restaurants also would have to keep contact information for patrons, who would be required to place reservations.

County Manager Jon Peacock emphasized the certification program remains under consideration by the state, and the program would be voluntary for businesses. It’s currently being tested in Mesa County.

As Colorado counties continue to move in the Red phase, Pitkin County remained in Orange Plus on Wednesday. In the meantime, it appears the state is on a fast track to decide on the fate of the five-star program.

By Thursday it plans to announce conclusions made from the five-star program in Mesa County, which is in the Red level but received a variation from the state to see how the program works. The test is a collaboration between the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and the county health department.

If the certification program gets the go-ahead, Pitkin County will need to act fast if its board of health elects to participate.

Under what Peacock said was an aggressive timeline set by the state, parameters and eligibility requirements would be published Dec. 14 with counties meeting the criteria launching the five-star program as early as Dec. 18.

As of Tuesday, questions about the program remained. While participating business would move a color level down on the dial, the state hasn’t said if that would be applicable to a red phase.

Jessica Lischka, who is Yeager’s business partner at Jimmy’s: An American Restaurant & Bar, was skeptical of the program because it will add confusion to the guest experience in Aspen this winter, where the county’s travel affidavit program debuts Dec. 14.

In the event that some restaurants participate in the program and others do not, visiting diners might do a lot of head-scratching.

“It’s already hard enough for people to understand what the heck they’re doing, even if our focus is to get things under control,” she said. “I don’t think adding more confusion to travelers coming to town getting bombarded with all of these requirements … I don’t know if that’s going to control the cases.

“I really believe this is not the best course of action for accomplishing the goals we want.”