By Chris Mannara
During a meeting Tuesday, the Pagosa Springs Town Council approved a motion showing support for a state program as well as an accompanying letter of support that encourages local businesses to implement safety measures that are beyond what is already required that would help slow the spread of COVID-19.
The program, entitled the 5 Star State Certification program, was created by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) and allows businesses to voluntary certify that they will meet an additional set of standards, Town Manager Andrea Phillips described.
If businesses are certified for the program, they can operate at one level up from what their respective county is currently at on the COVID-19 dial, Phillips described.
On Monday, all counties that were categorized as Level Red: Severe Risk were moved to Level Orange: High Risk, Phillips outlined.
Level Orange allows for restaurants to operate at 25 percent capacity and also allows for gyms and other entities to operate in the specific restrictions for Level Orange, Phillips added.
Under this program, Archuleta County restaurants could operate under Level Yellow thresholds, Phillips noted.
According to agenda documentation, this program would allow for businesses to accelerate their reopening and, depending on where a county falls on the COVID-19 dial, certified businesses are eligible for less-restrictive capacity caps.
The program also reassures employees and customers that businesses are adhering to enhanced guidance, according to program documentation.
In order for a county to set up the program, it must determine whether or not the program is a good fit for its community with the ability to exercise “significant flexibility and creativity” in designing a program, according to program documentation.
Additionally, each county must set up an administrative committee that would be responsible for administering the program; that committee must also include the local public health agency.
The committee for the program must also include various other local partners such as local elected leaders, nonprofits and the local Chamber of Commerce.
The next step for establishing a program is determining what resources the city or county can devote to the program, according to program documentation.
“No need to hire. I was hired as recovery coordinator. It’s half of my role and responsibilities, so this is an ideal program that I lead and I drive and I only engage support resources as needed week to week is how I do it,” Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC) Economic Recovery Coordinator Robert Clark explained.
Additionally, program documentation explains that compliance and enforcement will need to be determined.
“At this point in time ‘self-certification’ of individual businesses is not allowed. It is required that all businesses receive a live third party inspection,” program documentation reads.
According to Clark, even if the CDPHE requires a third party to do inspections, he could play that role because he is a contractor and not a full-time employee.
Clark would utilize a training manual that was created by La Plata County to train himself for inspections, he noted.
The objective and intent of the program locally is to get compliance from all businesses and work with them to the point that law enforcement should never get involved, Clark explained.
The next step would be for the local administrative committee to submit a variance application to the CDPHE to receive approval for the program; this variance would require a letter of support from the local public health authority, hospitals, other elected officials and local law enforcement agencies, program documentation notes.
The budget for this program, according to Clark, would take about 20 hours a week of his time for a total of about four months or 16 weeks.
That would equate to a total of $9,600 for the four-month period, Clark added.
Miscellaneous costs such as marketing would add an additional $2,000, he further clarified.
According to Clark, about 15 restaurants around town are interested in applying for certification for the program, but there would be an allowance for up to 20.
“I expect I can handle the workload of that amount of restaurants, getting around to their facilities, inspecting ongoing compliance and working the process with that number,” he said.
Other sectors, such as gyms, bars and outdoor events will have to be addressed as they come up, Clark added.
“I plan to live up to the defined and documented processes that have already been created and we are using ourselves. That doesn’t concern me,” he said.
In regard to enforcement, Clark explained that the enforcement subcommittee would include him and San Juan Basin Public Health (SJBPH) fielding the complaints.
“Certainly there should be warnings first, but I saw in La Plata’s plan that maybe only one warning. But, I don’t know if we should stick to that or not,” Clark said.
According to Clark, there are four supporting letters for the program, one of which is from Archuleta County.
Clark noted he made a request for a letter of support from SJBPH on Tuesday.
“I believe I could submit the application tomorrow,” Clark said.
Co-owner of Riff Raff Brewing Co. Jason Cox explained that local restaurants would have been able to open and generate revenue if this program had been in place over the holidays.
“We’re being progressive about it, but the crux of it is that it is an economic benefit for the community and it also gives us some control,” Cox said, adding that there is an extra level of scrutiny with the program.
However, Cox noted that he believes that businesses that are certified for the program would go “above and beyond.”
“I think it’s a good program. I know it’s a little bit of extra work, but I think Robert and his role with the CDC will take on most of it, so I hope the council looks at it very hard,” Cox said.
According to Clark, if hospitalization and COVID-19 cases rise and Archuleta County were to go back to Level Red, the program would be suspended.
“The better news is that, at orange level, everyone goes to the yellow level and those metrics. At yellow, they go down to the next level. So, as long as the establishments, the facilities, meet compliance, whatever level the county is at they are going to operate at that lesser level going forward,” he said.
The program balances a fine line between public and economic health, Clark explained further.
Council member Shari Pierce noted that this program would put more responsibility on local business owners who are taking part in the program to make sure that patrons are wearing masks in their establishments.
Pierce later raised the question on whether or not this would become a problem for business owners.
“I think we’ll do whatever we can to stay open,” Cox responded. “There are businesses that are going to try and follow as they have been all the time and there are some that won’t. That’s just what it’s going to be. I feel like this is going to be a mechanism for those of us who want to try to abide by public health orders to have a little bit more leniency and leeway.”
If it becomes a problem where businesses think they can “cheat,” Pierce raised another question on whether or not that would make the town lose the entire program.
“I don’t think those who certify are going to violate it. I don’t think your enforcement will be harsh on those who say we’re going to step up and implement these extra levels,” Cox responded. “There’s a big opportunity for us peer to peer, as restaurant owners and operators, to educate each other on what the program’s needs and desires are.”
If town council would like to support the program, it would need to understand that restaurants and gyms and other businesses that would apply for the program are within town limits, Phillips noted, adding that enforcement would be on the Pagosa Springs Police Department and SJBPH.
“I like that it is an attempt to balance the public health and the economic health of the community, and I’m in full support of it, also recognizing that it seems that things are changing daily,” council member Mat deGraaf said.
Council member Nicole Pitcher explained that the program creates incentives for those who are prioritizing public and economic health, adding that it creates a group of business owners who are going to help each other work through the new landscape.
“Finding that balance between economic health and public health is challenging and so I think this is a great stab at it. It finds a pretty good balance that supports business and also supports public health in the community,” Mayor Don Volger said.