By Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4)– The evening started off quiet in Larimer Square. There were open tables and the sound of gas-powered heaters that thrummed along with the music.

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“Normally on a night like New Year’s, we would be so packed,” said Beth Gruitch, owner of Rioja, Stoic & Genuine, Ultreia, and Bistro Vendome. “There’s such anticipation for the New Year (normally), it’s just kind of strange.”

She was glad to hear that the governor had decided to push all counties in Level Red on the COVID-19 dial to Level Orange, but was a little stunned.

“This announcement just blew me away. I was not expecting it to happen this soon. I was expecting it to happen in January.”

New Year’s Eve also brought word that Denver would make an effort to join the Five Star Program that allows businesses to earn greater certification and more capacity – at least in theory. The City had pulled together a big effort to organize it said Eric Hiraga, Executive Director of Denver Economic Development and Opportunity.

“We are to create an administrative committee, get help from non-profits, the private sector, businesses, chamber, industry groups. And that really helped,” said Hiraga.

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Denver could have as many as 7,000 restaurants and other small businesses applying. Creating a system of inspection was deemed nearly impossible. It will supplement with volunteers.

“We need to train staff to review those applicants. Prioritize. We have to train inspectors, or auditors to go on location to really see the sites, whether it’s a restaurant, retail location, a salon, gym.”

While Denver will go to Level Orange allowing for a return to some indoor dining Monday, the Five Star Program is probably still weeks away after that.

As restaurants began to plan ahead for greater openings, they had yet to get clarity from the state, said Sonia Riggs, President and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association.

“We thought it was pretty black and white with the governor’s announcement,” Riggs said.

Businesses in counties where the program is already in place had hoped that by moving from Level Red to Leve Orange, the Five Star would mean moving them up a level to Level Yellow, which includes an increase to 50% capacity.

“We’re now hearing that that may not be the case. In fact, that it’s likely not to be the case. Which is frustrating and confusing frankly,” said Riggs.

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Going to 50% capacity even has its difficulties with rules that will still limit capacity to some restaurants to 50 people. But Gruitch has hopes.

“It’s a game changer. You know the 25% is a struggle. It’s a really big struggle.”

She’s hoping the requirement of 10 feet between tables can get dialed back to six.

“With the six-foot distancing, a lot of that doesn’t change in our restaurants because three out of four of our restaurants are pretty tiny.”

The Colorado Restaurant Association says many need far more capacity to truly make it.

“Restaurants told us they need to be at least 75% capacity to survive mid-term,” said Riggs.

But the CDPHE is saying that the businesses in the Five Star Program will have to remain at Level Orange with others. Stating in an email after CBS4’s inquiry Thursday night: “Counties participating in the 5-Star program that are moving to the Orange Level next week need to maintain the required Orange Level metrics for a period of time before moving to the Yellow Level capacities. We will be in contact with them in the coming days to provide additional information.”

When was not clear. But Denver leaders said going for the Five Star certification will make moving up more rapid once the county moves to a higher level. Not soon enough for restaurants all over Colorado, Riggs believes.

“So 25% is just really difficult. It’s a step in the right direction certainly but it’s just not going to help these restaurants survive over the next few months.”

Alan Gionet