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Heather Alexander, sampling site coordinator with Mesa County Public Health, checks in people to be tested at the COVID-19 testing site at the Mesa County Fairgrounds in early November.

Mesa County’s unique program to certify businesses that go above and beyond in following public health orders, and are allowed a special variance from those orders, was added to one of the major bills working its way through a special session of the Colorado Legislature.

That program, unofficially known as the Five-Star Program, was included in SB1 that won final approval in the Colorado Senate on Tuesday morning and preliminary approval in the House later in the day.

Gov. Jared Polis said the state is already working on rolling out that program to other counties, but added that those counties that don’t want to use it, such as Garfield County, won’t be required to do so.

It’s now part of a measure that is designed to provide $58 million to eligible small businesses, arts and cultural organizations and certain minority-owned businesses most impacted by what the pandemic did to the state’s economy. That means it’s intended only for those business that are in counties under the most severe public health restrictions, such as Mesa County.

Regardless of that aim, some Republican lawmakers balked at the measure, saying it is too little, too late. Only $37 million of the money would go to such businesses as restaurants, bars and food vendors, with $7.5 million going to entertainment venues, $4 million to minority-owned businesses and $1.8 million to waive liquor license fees.

Still, many of them voted for it anyway.

“We scrape together $37 million for restaurants, caterers and small businesses, and we create a complex formula of how we’re going to share what is literally a few pennies with businesses that have been ravaged,” said Sen. Bob Gardner, R-Colorado Springs. “I will be a yes on this bill because there are some things about it that are good about it however too little too late, but I must tell you that it is among the most imperfect of bills that I have witnessed in my time here. It has glaring aspects that are so indicative of the politics of the play.”

That measure isn’t the only bill aimed directly at aiding small businesses.

House Bill 4 that cleared the House and awaits final approval in the Senate also would allow qualifying businesses — restaurants, bars and food vendors — to retain all the state’s sales taxes they collect up to $2,000 a month for the next four months, starting with November.

Like Senate Republicans, House Republicans said the measure’s $53 million isn’t nearly enough, but likewise voted for it, saying it’s better than nothing.

“Of all the bills that we’re going to consider before us in this special session, this is hands-down the one that’s going to have the biggest impact for actually saving small businesses,” said Rep. Colin Larson, R-Littleton. “Unfortunately, we’re not doing enough and we’re still going to see thousands of businesses fail, but this bill in its current form will do more to stop business failures than anything else we’re going to do.”

As many as 10 bills are expected to make it through the special session, including measures designed to provide aid for renters, additional funding for food banks, help in paying winter heating bills and money to keep child care centers open.

The session is expected to end later today.