Littleton officials say they are ready to implement the Five-Star Recovery Program that allows qualifying businesses to adopt looser COVID-19 restrictions, though some local business owners call the program a mixed bag.
Arapahoe County received word on Dec. 30 that it qualified for the program, which would allow restaurants to resume indoor dining, after several weeks of declining COVID-19 infection and hospitalization rates.
Just hours later, Gov. Jared Polis announced he was asking the state health department to lift all level red restrictions statewide, which would allow all restaurants to resume limited indoor dining suspended in November.
Though county officials initially hoped the rollback meant that qualifying businesses could begin operate at level yellow, allowing restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, a county must first meet all the metrics of level orange, which those in the metro area have not. The counties’ 14-day incidence rates need to move from red to orange first.
To qualify for the Five-Star program, businesses must file a plan with the county detailing how they will comply with strict COVID-19 protocols, including maintaining at least 10 feet between tables in restaurants, enforcing mask wearing, and using high-quality air filtration systems. Businesses must then receive an inspection to confirm the plan, which in Littleton will be handled by city building inspectors.
“This could have a huge impact for our businesses,” said Colton Harguth, the city’s economic development specialist, who is overseeing the program. “We’ve been hearing calls for this program since these restrictions came down from the state.”
Littleton has at least 1,800 businesses that could fall under some aspect of the Five-Star program, Harguth said, though the city is not yet aware how many plan to apply.
“We’ll prioritize inspecting restaurants, gyms and indoor event centers,” he said. “They’re the most severely impacted.”
How long the inspections will take to complete and when businesses will receive their certification isn’t yet clear.
“We’re flying the plane as we build it,” Harguth said. “We don’t have much time to think everything through 100%.”
Enforcement will be on a complaint basis, he said, and will fall to Tri-County Health staff.
The Five-Star program isn’t a panacea, said Keven Kinaschuk, who owns McKinners Pizza Bar in downtown Littleton.
“You’d need a machete to cut through the red tape on this,” Kinaschuk said.
While he plans to apply for the program and called it a step in the right direction, Kinaschuk said McKinners’ revenues are down by half this year, leaving him struggling to pay creditors. Federal grant money from spring has long since run out, and outdoor patio dining is unappealing on cold winter days.
Even if Kinaschuk gets approved, his small dining room means he likely won’t be able to seat more than a handful of people indoors.
“I’ll start jumping through the hoops, I guess,” Kinaschuk said. “Anything I can do to increase my sales, I’ll do it. We’ll survive, but barely. I’m numb to it at this point.”
For some business owners, the Five-Star program isn’t worth the trouble.
Priscilla Freed, who owns Camp MissFits, a women’s fitness studio in the Woodlawn shopping center, said she reviewed the requirements for the program and realized it wouldn’t improve her situation.
“We’re a small studio, so with social distancing we can only fit eight people in here at a time anyway,” Freed said. “Then there’s the added costs of new HEPA filters for our HVAC system. Unless a gym is really huge, there’s no benefit.”
Freed said she and her staff have pivoted to online lessons, and are now drawing clients from as far away as Canada and Germany. Still, it hasn’t been enough to cover the increased costs of the bigger space Camp MissFits moved into early in 2020.
Nevertheless, Freed plans to persevere.
“Persistence is my middle name,” she said. “If I have to coach every session myself, I’m going to make it. God brought us to this place, and I wasn’t put here to fail. We’ll keep working on the virtual program. I may only be able to get eight people in here, but the sky is the limit for the virtual stuff.”
Even if the Five-Star program isn’t a cure-all, it’s a step toward survival for some businesses, said Pat Dunahay, the co-chair of the Littleton Business Chamber.
The chamber is doing what it can to support the program, he said, including mobilizing 17 members to serve as mentors for small businesses seeking to put in their applications.
“This year has been terrible, and businesses are struggling like hell,” Dunahay said. “We’ve got six storefronts for rent on Main Street. We haven’t seen that for years. We’re very concerned for the future. Let’s hope this gets us through to the light at the end of the tunnel.”