The El Paso County Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously supported a plan with strict rules to allow in-person dining at restaurants.
The plan now needs approval from Gov. Jared Polis and the state health department before restaurants can offer in-house service. If the state approves, El Paso County restaurants must follow rigid guidelines in order to open their doors for dining. That includes a cap on seating capacity and maintaining a 6-foot distance between tables. Commonly used items — like menus, salt and pepper, and condiments — must be single-use only.
Public health officials are also encouraging restaurants to gather the name, phone number, table assignment, and dining time of one adult per party and to keep that information for 21 days to help with thorough contact tracing if an outbreak occurs. A restaurant will have to close if two or more cases of COVID-19 are linked to the business within 14 days.
County commissioners said they’ve been working on a plan to reopen restaurants for weeks and don’t want to delay them any longer.
“I’m excited to support this because I’m excited to get restaurants back to work,” said Mark Waller, who represents District 2. “I think passing this thing is absolutely the right thing to do.”
El Paso County looked to Mesa and Eagle counties for guidance, said Susan Wheelan, director of the county’s public health department. Those two counties, along with Rio Blanco and Sedgwick counties, have already received variances from the state. Dining at restaurants in Mesa County is limited to a capacity of 30 percent.
El Paso County is one of Colorado’s most populous, and it has one of the lowest infection rates along the Front Range, Wheelan said. The county confirmed 1,175 positive cases of COVID-19 and 81 deaths as of Wednesday, according to state data.
“We all miss dining out at restaurants,” Wheelan said. “We will do this in a responsible way, protecting the health and safety of the over the 700,000 population in the county.”
In order for the state to approve a variance, a county must prove that it has seen a reduction in positive COVID-19 cases over 14 days. The plan must be approved by the local health agency, commissioners and all area hospitals. If a county gets approval, it will not receive any COVID-19 preparedness grant money.
Wheelan said El Paso County chose a variance specifically for its restaurants in part because the industry is one of the largest drivers of the local economy and provides many jobs.
Many restaurant owners want to get back to serving people and do so in a responsible way, said Greg Howard, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association’s Pikes Peak chapter. He added that the longer restaurants go without offering dine-in service, the worse the financial impact will be.
“Moving forward, there’s going to have to be a lot of personal responsibility to battle this crisis and this virus, and I support that,” Howard said. “But as a business owner and operator and industry leader, I know that we take this very seriously. The last thing we want to do is go backward.”
El Paso County’s plan comes after some restaurant owners around Colorado have defied statewide public health orders by hosting sit-down dining without permission.
Health departments in eastern Colorado have said their eateries are already considering what their dining rooms will look like once they’re allowed to reopen.
Gov. Polis said earlier this week that he plans to announce guidance on when and how restaurants can reopen by May 25.