48 Hours in Summit County

Over 130 restaurants were approved to operate at increased capacity in one weekend.

Aerial view of Keystone Colorado with snow on buildings and mountains.
Keystone and other Summit County businesses were some of the earliest beneficiaries of the 5 Star Certification program. / cascadecreatives © 123RF.com

Colorado’s 5 Star Certification program has operators across the state feeling some kind of way. Whether you see it as is window dressing, political theater, a smart (if burdensome) way for the state to placate the restaurant industry, just another hoop to jump through, or “fucking bullshit,” as one restaurateur memorably stated, it’s generated enough questions and conversations to launch a thousand ships.

As businesses in some counties can attest, the process for getting approved seems to be going nowhere fast (we’re looking at you, Denver). In others, like Summit County, the program was put in place with lightning speed. The county’s application for the 5 Star program was approved Friday, December 18—just two days after it was rolled out to the entire state. By Monday, December 21, the county had approved 136 restaurants for the program.

Summit County manager Scott Vargo explained the process: The county put together a training plan for on-site inspectors required to visit businesses requesting 5 Star Certification on Wednesday afternoon (the same day the program was expanded from Mesa County to the rest of the state). Inspector training was held on Thursday, December 17; by that afternoon, inspectors were showing up at restaurants that had applied to be part of the program.

The county had already begun accepting restaurant applications in anticipation of being approved by the state. “We tried to simplify [the application process for operators] as much as possible,” says Vargo. To that end, Summit County’s 5 Star Certification application form is just two pages, the bulk of which are a straightforward checklist for businesses to complete. “They are identifying for themselves if they believed they had met these items,” Vargo explains. Business owners are not required to file outbreak detection, reporting, or response plans or documentation of HVAC improvements with the county; Vargo states those are verified during the on-site inspection.

“That first weekend,” Vargo continues, “we were doing re-inspections as early as Saturday or Sunday.”

So who are the people conducting these inspections? Volunteers. (That’s the route the City of Denver, which is home to about 7,000 restaurants, is pursuing as well.) That inspector training was rolled out to around 60 employees of both Summit County and its municipalities. Vargo notes that while there were no qualification requirements for volunteers, “From our perspective, when we gave out jobs, we looked for folks who had field experience who would be more comfortable in that environment,” citing employees in community development roles who are used to conducting inspections (though generally not of the public health variety) being sent out for on-site visits.

“That first weekend,” Vargo continues, “we were doing re-inspections as early as Saturday or Sunday.” He notes the most difficult aspect of the inspection for restaurants was the requirement for ventilation improvement, though he believes all restaurants that have so far applied for 5 Star Certification ultimately passed. Vargo also credits the ease of implementation to collaboration between the county and towns of Breckenridge, Dillon, Frisco, and Sliverthorne (municipal volunteers inspected restaurants in town, while county workers took charge in unincorporated Summit County), as well as the county’s already-existing physical distancing protocols for all businesses.

So there you have it: A short, sweet application plus a squad of volunteers equals 5 Star Certifications all around. Of course, this was made moot (or at least more confusing) when Governor Polis announced a return to Level Orange for Colorado counties on January 4. But honestly? We wouldn’t be surprised if we all end up back in Level Red again someday, so stay tuned (and keep your crayons handy).

Talk to us! Email your experiences (and thoughts, opinions, and questions—anything, really) to askus@diningout.com


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