Gov. Jared Polis thanked Mesa County on Friday for starting its unique program to help keep businesses open while a pandemic rages around them.

Started over the summer, the county’s Variance Protection Program, also known as Five Star, has allowed businesses, including restaurants, to operate under a COVID-19 pandemic alert level lower than where counties are rated.

As a result, the first restaurants and other businesses outside of Mesa County that will operate under a new statewide version of the program will be in Summit County starting this weekend.

Larimer County is expected to be approved as the second county early next week.

“I want to applaud Mesa County for their leadership in pioneering the Five Star Program,” Polis said at his biweekly pandemic update. “Earlier this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released the final parameters for the Five Star Program for restaurants in particular, probably the most urgent area, but it certainly affects other businesses as well.”

Like Mesa’s program, the statewide one, which counties can choose to adopt if they want, calls for full compliance with mask wearing, social distancing and limiting who can be inside at any one time.

In exchange for upholding those restrictions, those businesses accepted into the program — assuming they also maintain those restrictions, which will be monitored by county health officials — will be allowed to operate under lighter restrictions, including at what percentage level they can operate.

“This is the pathway for restaurants to immediately get back to in-person dining,” Polis said. “This is the way to reward the business that are taking the right precautions, or going above and beyond. As the virus decreases, in effect if a county is orange on the dial, the businesses that are certified can operate as if they were in yellow.”

That’s the difference between a 25% capacity or 50% under the state’s color-coded status levels.

Polis and Dr. Rachel Herlihy, the state’s chief epidemiologist, said Colorado didn’t experience as big a surge in new cases over the Thanksgiving holiday as other states, but urged residents to continue that through the Christmas and New Year’s holidays.

“Our numbers remain high overall and call for continued action, but we are seeing improvements,” Herlihy said.

“You can see clear peak in mid-November, you can see a small increase in cases that occurred in early December, and then since then we’ve really had this continued downward trend in the last two weeks or so,” she said.

“This improvement isn’t being seen across the country. The U.S. overall has continued to trend up. A holiday spike that occurs in the next week or two could potentially set us back several weeks, and this is where we’re really asking for Colorado’s help, to step up once again like we did over Thanksgiving to help us stay the course,” Herlihy said.