The Baker City Herald, a sister publication of several Eastern Oregon papers including the Chieftain, recently asked Gov. Kate Brown’s office to explain why Oregon’s new risk level system for COVID-19 prohibits restaurants and bars from having indoor dining in the counties that are in the extreme-risk category.

The question, which no doubt many Oregonians have pondered, stems from the lack of evidence that restaurants and bars have contributed significantly to the surge in virus cases that started this fall and has affected almost every Oregon county, including Baker.

Indeed, the governor and other government officials have said repeatedly that private parties and other social gatherings are driving the trend.

Liz Merah, the governor’s press secretary, responded to the query with an email that fails to establish a connection between indoor restaurant dining and the troubling trend in the pandemic.

Merah wrote the current guidelines restrict “businesses/activities that are considered high risk (for reasons such as requiring people to be gathered indoors for extended periods, requiring removal of face coverings, or being difficult to maintain strict physical distancing).”

But the point here is not whether a business or activity is “considered” a high risk. What matters is whether there’s demonstrable evidence that a high risk exists.

Merah also wrote the restaurant restrictions “model the changes we need Oregonians to make in limiting gatherings and physical contact with others.”

But it’s clear not all gatherings pose a comparable risk. Eating at a restaurant might seem similar to having a party at your home, but the data from COVID-19 contact tracing shows the parties, not the restaurants, are the problem. This is hardly surprising. Restaurants, when open for indoor dining, required masks. They limited seating to maintain distancing. They sanitized. Their buildings have better ventilation than a typical home.

The governor should reconsider the current slate of restrictions, in particular those on restaurants and bars. Taking steps to curb the COVID-19 spread is wise. Imposing severe limits on one group of businesses, without a definitive benefit, is neither wise nor fair.

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