COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado — Many small businesses are struggling as counties up and down the Front Range have moved into level red restrictions on the state COVID-Dial in response to widespread virus activity. A new effort could bring those mom-and-pops some relief if the governor and state health department agree.
Members of 45 business groups including the Colorado Restaurant Association, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, and chambers of commerce from around the state sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis Friday asking him to consider modifying the COVID restrictions to use a framework based on Mesa County's 5-Star variance program.
At level red restrictions, indoor dining is prohibited. Bars and indoor entertainment venues must close. Offices, gyms, and fitness centers must abide by 10 percent capacity limits.
Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute said several restaurant owners in Loveland recently banded together and decided to keep their dining rooms open in spite of the Level Red restrictions.
"The Sheriff of Larimer County said, we're not going to shut you down, the police department in Loveland said we're not gonna to enforce this, the city council said no, we're on your side and even the local health board said, whoa wow, let's work together unless you to make sure that there's a safe way to do that," Caldara said.
He praised the move in a column published last week calling the Level Red restrictions a Hobson's Choice.
"Do I let the government force me out of business by stealing my liquor license or do I obey them and go out of business myself," he said.
When governor Polis was asked about Loveland during a news conference just before Thanksgiving, he said health restrictions should be applied evenly across the state.
"I think it's a time for every Coloradan that includes county elected officials to really ask themselves are you on the side of the virus are you on the side of Colorado," Polis said.
He went on to explain that state regulators could intervene if local authorities failed to ensure compliance with the restrictions.
"Quite clearly, no matter where you operate in the state of Colorado, you're subject to state law," Polis said. "Of course, as has been the case throughout this health crisis and even before this health crisis, CDPHE licenses restaurants, we have a department of revenue that licenses liquor stores, no matter where you are no matter what commissioners think liquor stores can't sell liquor to a 17-year-old."
Suzanne Karrer, Communication Manager for the Colorado Department of Revenue's Specialized Business Group Division explained in a statement to News 5 that the Liquor Enforcement Division (LED) investigates all complaints and violation tips and said will continue to perform routine checks at liquor licensed establishments.
"The LED conducts inspections to ensure licensees are in compliance with state and local public health orders," Karrer said. "While the division prioritizes education and outreach, businesses could face administrative actions for failure to comply with current regulations."
El Paso County moved to Level Red restrictions on November 27. Since then, the health department has received 283 inquiries, with 167 of those being complaints about compliance violations.
The largest share of complaints come from Retail Food Establishments (RFE) for Social Distancing and Capacity violations, mask usage, and issues related to the public health order guidance.
Jacqueline Kirby, Media Relations Manager for the El Paso County Sheriff's Office, said that if deputies locally are dispatched to a call related to public health order violations, they will focus on education and compliance.
The Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC is one of the groups that signed the letter to the governor. Rachel Beck, Vice President of Government Affairs for the chamber said one of the most difficult aspects of the changing restrictions for business owners is the impossibility of being able to plan.
"It's impossible to plan staffing, it's impossible to order the right amount of food, it's impossible to tell someone they can have a wedding in your facility even with a small one," Beck said.
She explained that under the proposal, any participating enterprise could operate at restrictions one step lower on the COVID Dial provided they abide by safety protocols. Those protocols include keeping customers properly distanced, symptom checks for employees, and cleaning of high-touch surfaces.
While the proposal is based Mesa County's variance model, it makes a couple of changes including setting business capacity at 50 percent and establishing local control of the regulation.
"What we really love about the Mesa County plan is that it would allow businesses to have some certainty and be able to plan for an indefinite amount of time how they could do business," Beck added.
She said the state is currently reviewing data from Mesa County, but expects that the 5-star model could launch statewide by December 18.