“Everything’s on the table” as small businesses respond to governor's coronavirus orders

Sam Ribakoff Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A new reality began to set in on March 19 for New Mexico residents who run, work in and patronize a host of service businesses, like TJ’s Diner on Farmington’s Main Street.

Manager Nathan Hill says he thinks he will lose business under sweeping emergency restrictions — aimed at cutting the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus — that turned sit-down restaurants like his into take-out and delivery-only businesses.

Keep reading:Museums, Farmington library, aquatic centers close amid coronavirus concerns

Bars and restaurants across the state closed seating areas, hotels and other lodging businesses were told to operate at only 50 percent capacity and gymnasiums were told to shut down until April 10. Shopping malls, spas, movie theaters and recreational facilities are also among the businesses ordered shuttered under Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s March 18 emergency order.

Main Street Spirit is closed due to concerns about the coronavirus, according to a sign in the store's window, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in Aztec.

As San Juan County begins to adapt to these changes, its small business owners, and the people who work for them, are already feeling the strain as they struggle with how to survive and serve the community in this precarious and unprecedented time.

“I’ve been waiting for that to happen,” said Hill about the emergency order. “For us, doing take-out only, I just don’t see that being a viable option.”

Hill said he’d try to for a couple of days to do take-out only orders, but he didn’t see it working in the long run. He estimated that the restaurant could see a 60 to 70 percent drop in revenue.

The 550 Brewing taproom, pictured Thursday, March 19, 2020, on Chuska Street in Aztec is closed until further notice in efforts to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The pizza parlor on Main Avenue remains open for curbside pickup.

Dining rooms closed, waiters laid off

“It’s just a sad situation. A lot of lives that are affected by this. A lot of people’s livelihoods,” said Leonard Trujillo, the general manager of Rubia’s restaurant, in Aztec, as he heard the governor’s announcement.

Trujillo said he would most likely have to lay off all of his employees temporarily, with a promise that once Rubia’s is able to reopen its dining room, all of the laid-off employees could reclaim their previous positions.

“We’re a family restaurant; we treat everyone like family. It’s a big loss for all of us,” Trujillo said.

Trujillo said that Rubia’s would remain open for take-out orders and delivery, with himself, another manager and the owner of the restaurant taking on cooking duties.

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Boons Family Thai BBQ owner Morey Havens had a similar response to the news.

“We’re going to have to quit scheduling people, waiters and waitresses,” Havens said, “They will not have an income source.”

Havens said the staff members would be able to reclaim their jobs when the dining room was able to reopen, including dish washers, who he said would also be temporarily let go. 

Havens said Boons would try to stay open and deliver over the weekend using Grubhub, a delivery app for smartphone users, but that customers in the past had reported problems with using the app. If Boons doesn’t receive enough orders, Havens said he would have to reassess whether the restaurant would stay open until April 10.

A sign on the Rubia's door urges customers to call ahead for curbside orders, Thursday, March 19, 2020, after an executive order prohibited dining in at restaurants due to coronavirus.

“Everything’s on the table,” Havens said.   

A survey done of 835 American adults conducted March 13-14 by The Marist Poll, National Public Radio and PBS NewsHour found that 18 percent of respondents had been fired or let go from their job because of coronavirus-caused closures of businesses. A majority of the respondents who were let go from their jobs made less than $50,000 a year, according to the survey. 

Local hotels and motels

At Aztec’s Presidential Inn & Suites, employees will be temporarily laid off next week as coronavirus has left the hotel practically empty, according to General Manager Joshua Large, who will keep the hotel open on his own after that.

Large said there are only three occupied rooms, and the hotel has lost $122,000 to cancellations.

Step Back Inn in Aztec announced that it will be closed for a month due to the coronavirus, but Large said he doesn’t have the option to close Presidential Inn & Suites because doctors and nurses who work at a nursing home in Aztec are staying at the hotel.

“We’re staying open for them,” Large said.

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In her executive order, Lujan Grisham ordered hotels to operate at 50 percent or less capacity, but Large isn’t worried about that order.

“I doubt I’ll get above 10 percent,” he said.

The emergency order for hotels and lodging businesses states that the 50 percent operating capacity rule does not apply to "operations providing lodging to health care workers who are engaged in the provision of care to New Mexico residents or those businesses providing temporary housing to individuals employed and working in New Mexico.​​​"

Just a few days ago, Large said Presidential Inn & Suites was looking at operating at 80 percent to 85 percent capacity for most of March and April.

Large said the best thing people can do to help Presidential Inn & Suites is to stay at home and practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus and allow the pandemic to end as quickly as possible.

In her press conference, Lujan Grisham said hospitality businesses like hotels play an important role in the efforts to combat the disease. She said health care workers will need hotels to have a place to stay to limit contact with their families.

The manager of the Encore Motel in Farmington, TJ Patel, said that on the morning of March 19 he had to refund the rates of a number of his guests and ask them to leave because he went above the 50 percent capacity limit.

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"I don't know how I'm supposed to run this business at 50 percent and pay my bills," Patel said. "Am I going to be compensated for that?" 

The manager of Casa Blanca Inn and Suites in Farmington, Carol Huntington, said she had experienced about 70 room cancellations since the beginning of March, which has hurt financially, but she’s trying hard not to cut down on staffing.

“I’m looking at the opportunity to do some deep cleaning,” Huntington said, “I’m ready for it to be over, though.”

Other closures

Feat of Clay Artists Co-op also announced on social media that it is closing until April 4 and will revisit the situation in early April.

The City of Farmington announced it is closing the Farmington Civic Center, as well as the park shelters. Lake Farmington remains open, but swimming is not allowed. Piñon Hills and Civitan golf courses will also remain open, but no tournaments will take place.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

Sam Ribakoff is a visual journalist for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-333-5283 or via email at sribakoff@daily-times.com.

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