Restaurants could open before end of month; county requests variance from state |

Restaurants could open before end of month; county requests variance from state

A variance request to the state could allow local restaurants to open early, before Gov. Jared Polis' statewide timeline, following a vote from the Routt County Board of Health on Tuesday.
Derek Maiolo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Restaurants in Routt County could reopen their doors to patrons before the end of the month if the state health department grants the county’s request for a variance from the state’s public health orders.

The Routt County Board of Health on Tuesday unanimously approved a variance request that would loosen restrictions imposed by the state to slow the spread of COVID-19. The variance must be approved by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment.

Restaurants across the state have been closed for in-person dining since March 17 after Gov. Jared Polis issued an executive order amid a growing number of cases of the novel coronavirus. Since then, establishments have been allowed to continue serving food and drinks through takeout and delivery as long as employees follow health guidelines, such as social distancing and wearing face masks. 

About half of the 64 counties in Colorado have submitted similar variance requests to the state health department, but only a handful have been granted.

Neighboring Moffat County received approval of its variance request on Thursday, two weeks after it was submitted. The variance allows retail stores, gyms, movie theaters and places of worship to reopen with mitigation protocols in place and a suppression plan that includes strategies to deal with potential outbreaks of the virus amid the lighter restrictions. 

The state estimates that more recent variance requests would take three to five days for a decision, according to Routt County Public Health Director Kari Ladrow.

In the local request, signed by Ladrow and Routt County Public Health Medical Officer Dr. Brian Harrington, officials requested that restaurants be allowed to open to in-person dining immediately upon the state’s approval.

The variance request highlighted several factors that make the county eligible for a variance. Compliance with health guidelines, relatively low case numbers and expanded testing capabilities were among the factors cited. 

“Allowing Routt County to customize its restrictions specifically to the conditions in the county will allow comprehensive community recovery, both in terms of health and economy,” the request states. 

It includes mitigation protocols, developed by a committee that included local restaurant owners, county staff and members of the Steamboat Springs Chamber, to protect customers and employees from potential contact with the virus.

According to those protocols, tables would need to be placed at least 6 feet apart, and every other booth must be kept empty. Customers must practice social distancing but would be allowed to remove their face masks when seated. Bar seating and live music would not be permitted. 

Employees would be required to wear personal protective equipment and get screened daily for COVID-19 symptoms, according to the variance. Any employee who exhibits symptoms would be sent home, and the incident would be documented. 

A discussion over semantics raised questions over what constitutes a restaurant and which businesses could reopen under the variance request. As Routt County Environmental Director Scott Cowman pointed out, there is no clear distinction between a bar and a restaurant. Laws require any establishment with a liquor license to also serve some type of food.

In the end, the Board of Health decided to allow bars, distilleries and similar establishments to reopen under the variance request if they have sufficient mitigation protocols in place, according to Routt County Commissioner Beth Melton.

The state will have final say in what types of businesses, if any, could open in Routt County under the request.

It also is possible that the state allows restaurants in the county to reopen but at a reduced capacity. That has been the case for Mesa County, where restaurants could reopen but at 30% of their normal capacity. The limitation has upset some business owners who said they could not make a profit at such a reduced occupancy. 

While that would not be an ideal scenario for many local restaurant owners, Commissioner Melton said that at least it would be a step toward more normal business operations.

Cowman, who oversees restaurant inspections in the county, underscored difficulties in enforcing public health protocols at local businesses. His department has not received approval from the state to conduct its usual field inspections, and even when those resume, there are only two inspectors to cover the entire county. 

“We really are going to depend upon owners, managers and employees of these restaurants to follow these protocols,” Cowman said.

Plans from the state to further lighten restrictions under the safer-at-home phase will be announced later in the month. Gov. Polis expects to have a decision on whether ski resorts, restaurants and summer camps can reopen by May 25. Further easing of restrictions will be considered after June 1. 

Any conditions in the variance would expire when the state implements less-restrictive rules. 

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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