Restaurant community asks Routt County to pressure state to reopen restaurants

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Restaurant owners are asking the Routt County Board of Commissioners to pursue every way possible to open restaurants in some fashion, noting what has been happening in Mesa County, which is also in level red.

Mesa County created the Variance Protection Program earlier in the pandemic which requires restaurants and businesses to obtain a Five Star Certification to ensure that they are in compliance with public health orders. They were able to start this program while in the Protect Our Neighbors level of the state’s dial, a level that Routt County did not reach.

While the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment tried to revoke the program when Mesa County moved into level red, Gov. Jared Polis overruled them, allowing the program to remain in place for a limited amount of time, said Erick Knaus, attorney for Routt County.

Still, to keep the program, Mesa County would need to get back to level yellow, something that does not seem likely in the near future, Knaus said.

But for restaurants on their last leg, it is frustrating to see other counties conduct business while they have to keep their doors closed. This has restaurant leaders pushing commissioners to do whatever they can to try to reopen restaurants, especially by pressuring the state.

David Wilson, a lawyer who represents the owner of three restaurants in Steamboat Springs, wrote to commissioners trying to stress the dire circumstances that some restaurants are facing.

“Having the restaurants continue without in-person dining is not only unsustainable, it will shortly be fatal to a number of restaurants in Steamboat,” Wilson said.

He identified the Mesa County program as a potential solution to allow restaurants some stream of revenue.

Scott Engelman, board chairperson of the Colorado Restaurant Association and owner of two restaurants in Steamboat, said he has been working with Commissioner Beth Melton to try to give some restaurants relief.

“We don’t want to subvert any of the mandates that are being passed down by the state, the county or the city,” Engelman said. “What we do want to do is possibly find a path that allows us to create an exception to the level red that allows restaurants to try to harness some opportunities for taking in revenue, kind of a survival tactic I suppose.”

Engelman wants Routt County to push the state to allow them to incorporate the Five Star Program locally and reopen restaurants with limited capacity.

But Knaus said he has been told this is not a possibility.

He noted the state is flexible at times, pointing to an executive order that does not allow variances even though the state has issued some variances since it was signed.

Still, there is no current variance process available to Routt County, Kraus said. Other counties have also been told they will not be able to implement such a program while at level red.

Engelman said he wants the county to be open to the possibility of such a program, even if it doesn’t happen in the near future.

“It may be possible for us to do it, and it may be far fetched, but who is to say until we take a look at it?” Engelman said

Commissioner Doug Monger said that he feels the state acted too quickly when it shut down restaurants in Routt County earlier this month.

“It was a stretch by the governor to say that we need to shut down the last 25% of the restaurant business,” Monger said.

Monger said he struggles to see how 25% capacity at restaurants would contribute significantly to more COVID-19 cases, though he admitted that is not his expertise. Monger suggested counties collaborate with each other to ask Polis to rethink restrictions on restaurants.

Melton said that she was on a call Tuesday to learn from Mesa County and what they are doing. In that meeting, it was clear that a county-by-county approach to implement programs to safely open restaurants would be difficult and a statewide approach would be better.

Still, the state is not considering such a program at this point, Melton said, but she made clear she is open to new ways to open restaurants safely.

“If there is a way that our public health experts believe (restaurants) can safely be open for dining in, then I am all for that because absolutely our restaurants are hurting, and they are critical to the character of our community,” Melton said. “I think anything that can be done should be done.”

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