Pitkin County manager: Restaurants will get fast-track for 5-Star benefits

Businesses as early as Thursday can submit applications with Pitkin County to participate in a state program that eases color-code restrictions.

Pitkin County Manager Jon Peacock told the Aspen Chamber Resort Association’s board of directors on Tuesday the county will open the application period for membership into the 5-Star State Certification Program once it receives approval from the Colorado Department of Health and Environment. That word is anticipated by Wednesday, he said.

Pitkin County went under Red-level restrictions Jan. 17 after the board of health unanimously voted Jan. 11 in approval of the move. Those restrictions include a ban on indoor dining at all restaurants in Pitkin County. Outdoor dining, also with restrictions, is allowed under Red, and takeout is permitted.

Five-Star-certified businesses in the Red phase will be allowed to open under Orange restrictions — which allow a 25% capacity for indoor dining — only if Pitkin County shows a two-week sustained decline in its incidence rate, a two-week positivity rate under 10%, fewer than 90% of ICU beds in regional hospitals are in use, and hospitals have posted 10 days of stable or declining hospitalizations in the past two weeks.

Pitkin County is close to checking off all three boxes. For now, all eyes are on the incidence rate.

“In order to qualify for business to operate on a less restrictive level, our incidence rate needs to come down for (a 14-day) sustained period,” Peacock said. “That’s based on a three-day rolling average. Right now, we’re actually at day 11 of those 14 days on the state report card. We have seen a really, really significant drop in our incidence rate.”

If its downward trend holds through the week, and regional hospitalizations and the positivity rates stay level or don’t increase significantly during that time period, the county feels good about its chances to let businesses participate in the 5-Star program.

“The biggest issue for us, obviously, is the restrictions that are in place,” Aspen Mayor Torre said during the meeting. “And we are looking for the 5-Star program to get going as soon as possible.”

Sectors the most impacted by current health guidelines will receive priority in the 5-Star certification process, Peacock said. Restaurants, which are prohibited from serving indoor diners under the Red restrictions, would be put on the fast track for certification, the county manager said. Gyms and offices are also held to 10% capacity under Red, and retailers are limited to 50%, among other restrictions.

“We will initially focus on the most impacted, and I think that’s going to be our restaurant community, in terms of those sectors that are most impacted by our current public health orders,” Peacock said during the board’s monthly meeting, which was held virtually. “And we hope to really be in a position where we are getting folks certified here and reopened with some level of indoor dining or activity by this next week.”

Restaurants aiming for 5-Star certification must adhere to requirements that include employees doing daily symptom and exposure checks and recording customer names for contract-tracing purposes.

Much of the criteria the county already has required under local health orders, but there’s one that provides a sticking point for the restaurant sector, and that’s the 10-foot distance between tables.

“A lot of restaurants, especially small ones, are going to be disadvantaged by 10 feet,” said Matsuhisa owner Michael Goldberg, who also is the restaurant sector’s representative on the ACRA board.

Restaurants are weighing whether to apply for 5-Star certification or wait to see what board of health decides at its Thursday meeting.

If trends hold, the board of health will see that the positivity rate is dropping.

“That’s headed in the same direction,” Peacock said. “It is moving down. We need to stay below 10% to qualify for the variance for 5-Star, and we’re at about 7.7 right now.”

Hospitalizations are holding steady but could easily drop or rise, Peacock said.