San Juan County businesses face unknowns, hurdles when economy reopens after COVID-19 shutdown
Dr. Tom Inglesby, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, talks with USA TODAY's Jayne O'Donnell about isolation, reopening and COVID-19 vaccines. USA TODAY
A lingering sense of fear about the coronavirus pandemic's long-term impact is just one concern for Farmington-area business owners.
FARMINGTON — Although San Juan County was excluded from an order by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on April 30 easing restrictions on business operations in New Mexico, many local merchants affected by the COVID-19 shutdown are hopeful that at some point this summer, they will be able to open their doors to customers and resume operations.
But even if that happens, they say, they are likely to face sizable hurdles in getting their business operations back to full speed.
The governor's changes to the public health order permitted some nonessential businesses to reopen through curbside service or on an appointment-only basis. The order applied to businesses such as gun shops and pet services. It also allowed golf courses and state parks to reopen.
But the order did not allow gyms, barber shops and hair salons, casinos, indoor malls or movie theaters to reopen, nor did it allow restaurants to welcome back dine-in customers.
The order did not apply to San Juan, McKinley or Cibola counties, where the virus continues to take a heavy toll.
The shutdown has forced many businesses in the state to curtail or halt their operations. With no end to the pandemic in sight, some of those merchants are worried that even when they can reopen their doors, their situation will be far from ideal.
"It's going to be different for each business," Jamie Church, the president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, said about the restrictions and challenges merchants will continue to face for the foreseeable future.
Church said her organization is working with the San Juan County Business Response Team to help local business owners understand what to expect in terms of how they will be permitted to interact with customers. But she acknowledged that many elements of the resumption of economic activity include enormous unknowns.
"It's not going to be like, 'Monday's here, and we're all going to be back to business as usual,'" she said. "It's going to be a process."
The merchants interviewed for this story said they are worried about a number of issues, including whether they will be allowed to operate at full or partial customer capacity, how their supply lines will be impacted with reported shortages looming, how many of their employees will be willing to return to work and how the public will react to the continued threat of the virus.
"All of the above," said Martin Caddell, owner of The Cave Men's Grooming in Farmington, responding to a question about what has him most concerned.
The Cave has been closed since the shutdown went into effect in March and will remain shuttered until the governor alters her public health order or allows it to lapse. Caddell said he is itching to resume operations, but he knows even when he does, things won't quickly go back to normal in his shop.
Caddell is anticipating there will be a limit to the number of customers he can welcome inside at any one time, and he expects his barbers will be required to wear gloves, face masks and perhaps other protective gear when cutting a client's hair. It's also likely that the customers themselves will be required to cover up, he said.
"It's pretty hard to cut a guy's hair if he's wearing a face mask that ties around the back of his head," Caddell said with a chuckle, citing an example of how impractical some of those potential restrictions could be.
Even so, Caddell insisted he doesn't operate from a position of fear, and he looks forward to the day when he and his staff can get back to work.
"This is not fun. This is not ideal for anybody, and we'll attack the opportunity to go back to work with as much ferocity as we can," he said.
Church said as the reopening of the economy occurs in phases, she expects communities like Farmington to encourage consumers to support mom-and-pop businesses as opposed to the big-box stores that have escaped most restrictions.
"There's going to be a real push for local businesses to be able to do business in some fashion," she said. "The bigger stores have been essential, but I do think there's going to be quite a bit of push on behalf of locally owned businesses."
A 'bleak' future for restaurants?
Few sectors of the economy have been hit as hard by the shutdown as restaurants, especially those that operate under a dine-in model. While some of those eateries have adapted by moving toward take-out or delivery service, the shutdown has hampered their business and forced most of them to furlough or lay off many of their employees.
Many restaurant owners anticipate being allowed to open their doors to dine-in customers at some point over the next several months, but they understand that social distancing requirements will remain in place, mandating that only a percentage of seats ranging from 20 to 50 percent may be occupied.
They also anticipate having a certain amount of trouble accessing inventory from their suppliers, and they aren't sure if folks will want to enjoy a meal in public after weeks of being told to keep their distance from other people.
Randy Hodge, owner of Rubia's Mexican restaurant in Aztec, takes a pessimistic view of the future of his industry.
"I don't think it's ever going to happen," he said of a return to normal for restaurant operators. "I hope I'm wrong, but I foresee the future as being very bleak. I believe they've convinced people that you have to be very cautious. … I have no idea what to expect, but I'm prepared for the worst."
Hodge said he normally has 35 employees but is down to eight because of the shutdown.
In the early stages of the shutdown, his restaurant began selling fresh produce and some other items that had become scarce in grocery stores under a farmers market model in an attempt to maintain sales.
Hodge said he is considering doing some other things unique to the industry that might help his numbers because he believes he no longer will be able to rely on his former business model, even if an when all restrictions are lifted.
"If we hadn't opened that (farmers market), we wouldn't be open," he said of the way social distancing restrictions have impacted his business. "It's allowed us to continue to operate and keep a few people employed."
Hodge also is offering takeout service, but he said a big part of the experience of dining out is the energy and atmosphere a diner enjoys from being around other people. Take that away, or reduce it substantially, and the experience is diminished considerably, he said.
John Silva, the owner of the Three Rivers Brewery enterprises in downtown Farmington, echoed that sentiment.
"The restaurant business is a very social business," he said. "For us to open without being social is going to be very tough."
The limitations on seating capacity are only part of the new reality that could present major difficulties for restaurateurs. Hodge and Silver both confessed to being clueless about whether people will feel safe about venturing back out for a meal when they have the option to do so.
"We don't know until that day happens," Silva said.
Church said she won't be surprised if it takes diners a while to feel safe going out to eat again.
"I think people are going to be hesitant for a while about going out to a restaurant," she said. "It may take people a while to be ready to do that."
Hodge said his business is down 80 percent since the shutdown started, and he said he'll be shocked if his sales climb back to 50 percent of their average for the last five years even when he can welcome diners back inside.
"Having said that, I have a great following and a great clientele and a great market," he said. "But if I can stay open, I will be one of the lucky ones."
Silva said he isn't interested in reopening the dining rooms of his establishments under severe restrictions on capacity. That doesn't allow him to make enough money to make the effort worthwhile, he said.
"I can't operate a restaurant at 50 percent," he said. "This is going to be a crunch on my staff."
Silva said he has been forced to lay off or furlough all but a handful of his nearly 100 employees over the past few months. He said his business has been hit by a series of circumstances — an increase in the state's minimum wage in January, the closure of a section of Main Street for Complete Streets construction and now the COVID-19 shutdown — that have conspired to eat up most of his profit.
"My business has been crushed," he said. "I got the perfect storm."
Hodge and Silva said both their enterprises are experiencing minor problems obtaining their normal inventory from their suppliers because of disruptions in the market. But they said the bigger issue could be how they are expected to manage their employees when they can resume dine-in service.
They are taking it as a given that all employees will be required to wear masks and gloves. But will that apply to diners, as well?
Silva voiced concern that he would be required to monitor the health of his employees, taking their temperature before and during a shift, to make sure they are not displaying any symptoms of the virus.
Those kinds of issues worry Hodge, too. And even though he expects to see a strong response initially if and when he can reopen his dining room, he foresees a future in which people eat out far less than they used to. He said the model he is moving toward — part restaurant, part retail outlet — could become the standard as people embrace one-stop shopping.
"I think there's going to be a mindset that the fewer stops you have to make and the fewer contacts you have to make, the better," he said.
Silva emphasized that he has no intention of closing the brewing operation that he has watched grow and thrive for more than 20 years. But he acknowledged the profound sense of discouragement he is feeling.
"I'm lost," he said. "I don't know what to say. I'm hoping personally we survive this, but something tells me right now it's a whole new ball game."
Movie theaters fixed up, but nothing to show
Other segments of the economy have been deeply impacted, as well.
Russell Allen, whose family has operated the Allen Theaters chain throughout New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona for generations, also has seen his business closed throughout the shutdown, and there is no indication of when the cinemas will be allowed to reopen.
The company president said even when his theaters are allowed reopen, they will have difficulty finding films to screen.
"That's the biggest challenge," he said, noting that film production has come to a standstill, and the studios are unwilling to release most movies that are in the can until market conditions improve substantially.
"They're not going to release anything until they can get back 75 percent of what they thought they could make," he said.
Allen said that doesn't mean there won't be any new content, noting that the situation could provide screening opportunities for small-budget, independent films that normally wouldn't make their way into mainstream theaters. He also said it's likely that films that were still early in their run when the shutdown occurred could be brought back for a second chance.
"There's some product out there we've never played," he said. "But we won't have any Hollywood blockbusters."
The most reliable sector of the moviegoing market is young people, Allen said, and that means that any new films that are released will be targeted for them. So if you like to watch slasher films, you're in luck, he said.
"To get the ice broken, there are going to be some horror flicks the first two or three weeks," he said.
The other challenges his industry is facing are far more manageable, Allen said. The new computerized ticketing operations most theaters have adopted will make social distancing easy, as it will be easy to space out moviegoers with assigned seating.
Allen said sneeze guards easily can be installed at concession stands, and an ordering app that will go online soon will limit most interaction between attendants and customers to the financial transaction.
Additionally, hospital-grade foggers will be installed in auditoriums, allowing each room to be disinfected quickly and efficiently instead of workers wiping clean each surface between shows. Allen said showtimes also could be further spaced out, lessening the chances of the virus being spread by contact as people pass each other in the lobby.
He said even though movies traditionally attract large groups of people to a confined space, he considers moviegoing a safe activity.
"It's a social activity that has no person-to-person contact," he said, explaining that people in a crowd react together to what is happening on the screen, but they don't engage with each other physically. "It's probably safer than most things when it comes to that kind of contact."
Allen said his theaters in New Mexico will not simply reopen when they receive permission from the governor to do so, explaining that a lot of other considerations — staffing, retraining of employees and availability of movies — will factor into that decision.
He also said it makes no sense to reopen his theaters if they can't operate at a minimum of 50 percent occupancy.
But he is anticipating a good response when his operations do resume.
"I think there's going to be quite a bit of pent-up demand," he said, explaining that he recently had seen a survey indicating the top two activities most people are looking forward to indulging in again are going out to dinner and going to watch a movie.
"You can only watch so much Netflix," he said. "The movies still offer 2 or 2½ hours of pure escape from the world, and I still believe there are a lot of people who are going to be looking for that."
A guessing game for everyone
One local business owner who voluntarily closed her doors could be resuming operations this week.
Tweeti Blancett, owner of the Step Back Inn in Aztec, said she shut down her lodging establishment March 17 even though she was permitted to continue operating at reduced capacity. Blancett said she may open her doors again on May 4, but she will meet with her employees this weekend and let them decide if they feel safe coming back to work.
"A lot of our business is foreign visitors who come to do the Anasazi ruins," she said. "I noticed a lot of our cancellations were coming from Europe, and I thought, 'This should be telling us something.'"
Blancett said she feels like the time has come to resume operations, but she doesn't want her workers to feel like she's putting them at risk.
"I want to make sure everybody's comfortable with that," she said. "If they're not comfortable with it, I won't do it. It's just not worth it."
Blancett said even though hotels are considered essential businesses and have been allowed to continue operating during the shutdown, she still faces a number of unknowns like other business owners.
"I think the biggest thing everybody faces is the unknown," she said. "We don’t know if, when the restrictions are lifted, people are going to travel. Will they feel safe to get out and about?"
Caddell, owner of The Cave Men's Grooming, said he isn't sure how his clients will react, either.
He said the most disappointing thing about the shutdown for him was its timing. He opened his shop 20 months ago, and he said it had become well enough established that it was on the cusp of becoming highly successful.
Caddell isn't sure if he'll be able to recapture that momentum now.
"Hopefully, this doesn't set us back too far," he said. "But for our clients who were used to getting their hair cut monthly or every three weeks, will they start to think, 'I can go every six or eight weeks now'?"
At 4,000 square feet, Caddell said his shop is the largest men's grooming establishment in the area, so he has lots of room to accommodate social distancing requirements when he is allowed to reopen. But he said a big part of what The Cave offers is social interaction, and he worries that element will be lost if barber and client are hidden under layers of protective gear.
"It's not just a person who cuts hair," he said. "That interaction is important."
The atmosphere at The Cave — with its large, overstuffed leather couches, numerous big-screen TVs tuned to sporting events, snacks and even a bar from which patrons can sip a cold drink — is designed to make customers feel welcome and comfortable. Whether that inviting atmosphere continues to hold the same appeal in the future is anyone's guess, Caddell said.
When the restrictions against barber shops are lifted, Caddell said he anticipates new cleaning requirements being put in place, and that could place an additional burden on his business.
He said the average haircut is completed in 30 minutes now. But if every piece of equipment has to be disinfected, not just cleaned, in between clients, Caddell said that average might creep up to 40 minutes — and that will affect his profitability and likely force him to raise his prices or ask his employees to take a pay cut, neither of which is an attractive idea to him.
But as a relentlessly positive person, Caddell refuses to give in to despair.
He insisted he will adjust to whatever changes are required of his business, and he looks forward to the day when he can chat up his customers once again and perhaps even exchange a high five or a man hug.
"My mindset is, I'm a puncher, not a counterpuncher," he said. "We're going to hit the ground running. We're going to do the best we can to be open for our community."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e