For all the lively colors used to rate risk on the state’s updated COVID-19 “dial” — the upshot is just plain bleak for much of Colorado’s restaurant industry.

Restaurants in the 20 counties designated “red” last week because of the rapid growth of their COVID caseloads — including Denver and other metro-area counties — are effectively being shut down starting today unless they offer carry-out service or outdoor dining.

Not all of the state’s populous counties so far rate a “red” status under the newly revised color code. El Paso County was still at a less restrictive “orange” as of Friday morning. Yet, given the rapid spread of the recently spiking virus, it could be only a matter of time before Colorado Springs eateries are similarly affected.

In the wake of last spring’s crippling shutdown of wide-ranging businesses including eateries and bars, followed by a phased-in return to dining on site by summer, the latest, renewed crackdown to curb the coronavirus could permanently shutter many restaurants. After all, even last summer’s option of seating dining patrons outdoors to meet health officials’ distancing requirements is no longer on the table for probably most dining establishments amid wintry nighttime temperatures. And that’s even if they have the outdoor space.

The dial’s red rating was recently rescaled by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to stop short of last spring’s “stay-at-home” orders; that now falls to purple. Even the red restrictions also put the squeeze on other kinds of businesses and activities. Bars that don’t serve food are closed outright; offices and gyms are required to operate at a fraction of capacity. So are houses of worship. Personal gatherings — as Thanksgiving nears — are barred for anyone but those currently living in the same household.

Yet, even in its updated, business-friendlier iteration, red offers still less leeway, or mercy, for restaurants. And the industry at this point is on the verge of free-fall.

Sonia Riggs, president and CEO of the Colorado Restaurant Association, told Colorado Politics the new restrictions would be “catastrophic” for the industry. The association’s latest survey of its members indicated nearly a quarter of restaurants in counties entering this new risk level could close in less than a month. 

And here’s the big question: Do restaurants really contribute more to the spread of the virus than do other kinds of businesses, to an extent that it makes sense to halt indoor dining entirely — while continuing to allow customers into other kinds of businesses? Riggs says no.

“This feels like an especially difficult blow considering there is little evidence tying dining to surging cases,” Riggs said. “Most spread is happening in private gatherings.”

The public health establishment disagrees. Denver’s Department of Public Health and Environment says about a quarter of the outbreaks it has been able to track in the city in recent weeks were at restaurants.

Yet, the restaurant outbreaks tallied by the department in recent weeks and shared with Colorado Politics amount to only single digits in most weeks — a drop in the bucket of all new COVID cases turning up in any given week in Denver. The same is no doubt the case statewide. And Denver’s health department acknowledges its tracking of outbreaks in general is imprecise.

Do eateries, where all staff are masked, really pose more of a risk of catching COVID than standing in line — even a socially distanced line — to pay for groceries at your neighborhood supermarket? Or, at a your favorite big-box store?

Keep in mind restaurants are a cornerstone of any community’s small-business economy and in some towns might be the backbone. Restaurants often are the essence of a community’s vibe and can enhance its profile, as certainly is the case in Denver among many other cities. And they employ many, many people, often providing the kind of entry-level jobs that launch young people into the world of work. They also offer flexible hours for those juggling jobs.

Some steps are being taken to alleviate some of the financial stress the restaurant business is facing these days. Under consideration in Denver is delaying a scheduled increase in the city’s minimum wage Jan. 1 — a job killer under any circumstance. That would be wise but would offer little comfort. Whatever restaurant workers are paid, they need to serve patrons.

The public health establishment’s attempt to head off what it fears could be a crisis for hospitals if they are inundated could turn into a catastrophe for restaurants. The state’s red designation seems to fall disproportionately on eateries even though it’s hard to say they contribute disproportionately — or in real numbers, much at all — to COVID’s spread.

t’s not too early for the state to rethink its COVID dial yet again.