New Mexico eateries prepare to reopen on June 1, adapt to COVID-19 health measures

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Janie Balzano feared her restaurant couldn’t survive another few weeks offering takeout and curbside service only.

The Trinity Hotel and Restaurant in Carlsbad, which Balzano owns with her husband Dale was ordered to close, along with all New Mexico restaurants about 10 weeks ago by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19.

Lujan Grisham did allow outdoor or patio services to reopen on Wednesday, but continued to prohibit indoor dining areas from operating. 

All eateries across the state could reopen next Monday as Lujan Grisham continued to ease business restrictions imposed amid the public health crisis.  

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Many owners hoped Lujan Grisham would allow them to reopen on June 1 following her statement on May 20 that New Mexico was “on track” to lift restrictions as the rate of the virus’ spread appeared to be weakening.

“We continue to see sustained, consistent progress in our fight against this virus, which is a credit to the New Mexicans who have amended their behavior to keep themselves, their families and their communities safe," Lujan Grisham said. 

"I greatly look forward to being able to continue to ease the restrictions imposed on us by this heinous virus – provided that we continue on the right track and New Mexicans take every necessary precaution, whether in an individual capacity or as a business-owner or employee.”

Guests enjoy a home-cooked Thanksgiving meal at the Trinity Hotel on Wednesday afternoon.

As required by the State of New Mexico, The Trinity, like many New Mexico restaurants, was forced to resort to takeout or curbside service only amid the restrictions as it only has indoor seating. 

That meant orders of steak or calamari were only available in to-go boxes at the historic, high-end eatery.

And that’s not how Trinity was meant to be enjoyed, Balzano said.

Worse yet, the take-out only business model was not sustainable, she said, and could result in the iconic restaurant and bed and breakfast – built inside a former bank at the heart of downtown Carlsbad – closing for good.

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“It’s devastating,” Balzano said. “I know restaurants that will never open again. Most people don’t enjoy eating steak and lobster our of a box. We were never set up for to-go. If we can’t get open pretty quickly, it would be devastating to the Trinity. I don’t think the Trinity would be able to stay open.”

Adapting to survive

To be able to even consider opening next week, Balzano said the Trinity was outfitted with plastic glass shields over registers and other areas to prevent contact between customers and staff.

Groups will be limited to six or less and will be seated at least six feet apart.

Every table will have a bottle of hand sanitizer, and menus will be thrown away after each use.  

And diners can only eat at the restaurant if they make a reservation first, while capacity was limited to 50 percent of occupancy.

Balzano said her restaurant is already almost fully booked for June 1.

“We already have our customers calling in and making reservations,” she said. “They are going to be met with the same quality we’ve been known for, with the edge of extreme safety. We of all people know how to be safe when it comes to food.”

But menus could be slightly altered, made smaller to account for a reduction in the availability or increase in cost of some food supplies such as dairy or beef which quadrupled in price, Balzano said, as the industry saw dramatic decreases in commercial orders during the pandemic.

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“Things are getting pretty hard to find,” Balzano said. “That is definitely a challenge. There are a great many things that have changed, and they aren’t going away anytime soon. It’s a huge learning curve for all of us.”

Carol Wight, president of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, estimated up to 210 restaurants throughout the state closed for good during the pandemic.

That’s 6 percent of the industry – one of the state’s biggest employers.

Wight said she was certain eateries would be allowed to reopen at the end of May, optimistic that Lujan Grisham was clear that the date of June 1 was set.

Diners gather at the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant Nov. 21, 2018 for a free community Thanksgiving meal.

“We’ve achieved what we needed to which was to get a date to open restaurants,” Wight said. “Restaurants are out ordering perishable goods in preparation for reopening June 1. It would be hard to dial that back.”

As for the lasting impact on the industry, Wight said closures sent shock waves that would be felt years.

She said it could take 5 to 10 years for the industry might not return to where it was ahead of the pandemic.

“I don’t know if we’ll know the full impact for another 6 months, but it’s already been devastating,” Wight said. “Restaurants that were doing well had some padding, but that padding is gone now.”

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And even if eateries opened up at full capacity, Wight worried a large segment of the dining population could continue to fear going to back out for meals.

She estimated only about 30 percent of consumers were ready to dine out, still fearing they could be infected with coronavirus.

“I think the industry will look a lot different in the next year,” Wight said. “What we want to do is reassure customers that restaurants are ready. We’re talking about best practices and how we can go above and beyond.”

Wight said the Association discouraged Las Cruces-area restaurants in the southwest corner of the state to reopen for outdoor seating, as transmission of COVID-19 could be higher in the area that borders Texas and the City of El Paso. 

La Posta de Mesilla is pictured during the lunch rush in Mesilla on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Waiting and hoping

The June 1 opening is still not a done deal for Thomas Hutchinson, who owns La Posta De Mesilla in the Las Cruces area.

While he said he was anxious to reopen, and save his business from failure, Hutchinson said he hadn’t interpreted the governor’s words as definitive that June 1 was the date.

That’s why he’s holding off on purchasing perishables in anticipation of reopening the dining room and bringing employees back to work.

“We’re still waiting to get the definitive word from the governor,” Hutchinson said. “We think all the criteria she required is lining up well.”

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A dining area at La Posta de Mesilla is pictured during the lunch rush in Mesilla on Tuesday, March 17, 2020.

Even if La Posta and other eateries could open, the 50 percent capacity limit was not sustainable, Hutchinson said, and presented challenges in ordering enough supplies.

“It’s a different business model,” he said “The tricky part is how do you order for a new business model. There will be some major adjustments to address the food supply. We’ve been trying to build inventory in areas we might see shortages in.”

For now, Hutchinson and other restaurant owners can only hope that next month will bring the opening of their doors and another step on the road back to normalcy and away from the impacts of the virus.

“When you’re told to shut down with no real level of certainty as to when you can open again, it’s pretty tough. It’s a punch in the gut,” he said. “We eat three meals a day, and half of them are outside of our kitchen. You take that away and you’re losing an important behavior.

“Giving that back has got to feel good. It’s a big deal for everyone’s morale and psyche.”

Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-628-5516, or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.