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Millions of Americans have filed for unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic. The extra federal benefit was allotted "for weeks of unemployment ending on or before July 31," meaning the last full week of July, unless Congress extends it. Wochit

Merchants have until June 30 to complete survey

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FARMINGTON — A third survey put together by the Farmington Chamber of Commerce exploring how local businesses have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic is being conducted for the rest of the month, with the results expected to be posted shortly after the Fourth of July holiday weekend.

The third installment of the surveys came out last week and includes eight questions, most of them related to whether businesses have been able to reopen, the kind of obstacles business owners face in resuming operations and whether the responding businesses have returned to their pre-COVID-19 employment levels. Merchants have until June 30 to fill out the survey.

The chamber also conducted surveys in late March and late April, drawing between 150 and 200 responses each time. Chamber President Jamie Church said she doesn't expect as big a response this time, but she attributes that to the fact that many businesses have reopened and their proprietors are busy with those demands.

"I think this has been a good test for us in how to respond to an event like this," Church said of the feedback her organization has gotten from the surveys and the lessons they offer. "It helps us come up with the best way to help our business community if something like this happens again."

Church said she hopes the responses from the third survey offer the kind of data that allows the chamber to identify specific issues and develop strategies to help businesses that are struggling. She said she had spoken to a handful of business owners last week when the survey came out, and she got the sense that things are improving.

Related: Second Farmington chamber survey of business owners reveals toll of coronavirus shutdown

"I think it started out a little bit slow, but it is starting to pick up," Church said, explaining that some small retail stores were finding it especially hard to enforce provisions that customers wear masks or that occupancy rates be limited to 25 percent of normal.

Church is more concerned about the attitudes of consumers than she is about limitations on how many people can patronize a business at any given time. While she acknowledged that some restaurants that are used to being full most of the time are having difficulty staying afloat during a period of reduced occupancy rates, she said that isn't the primary issue for most business owners.

"I think there's more the consumer confidence," she said. "For three months, we've been cautioned not to go out in public. So I think it's a little bit tricky for people to go out and be in large groups."

Church said she expected to see that reluctance among consumers when Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham began relaxing many of her operating restrictions on businesses throughout the state earlier this month. But the amount of street traffic she sees and the number of cars she counts in parking lots tell her that tide could be turning.

"I think people are getting back to business pretty quickly," she said.

Still, Church said she understands things won't return to normal for a long time. She said the cancellation this week of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in October was a sobering reminder that it remains impossible to hold such large-scale events that attract scores of visitors.

"That being canceled is a pretty good message to the rest of us who had events planned," she said, explaining that the chamber's annual Chile in October Challenge at Berg Park has been called off, as well — the latest in a growing series of local events that have fallen victim to the pandemic, including Riverfest, the Connie Mack World Series and the Totah Festival & Indian Market.

But the news has been better than expected, in some respects. The release of New Mexico's unemployment figures for May showed a reduction in the state unemployment rate from 11.9% to 9.2%, a decline that mirrors the national trend. It also bucks the expectations of a month ago, when most economic observers were expecting the unemployment rate to continue to climb for at least another month.

"It is going in a downward trend, and I think that correlates with the amount of businesses that have been able to reopen," she said, adding that she hopes the trend continues as more businesses resume operations.

San Juan County continues to register one of the higher unemployment rates in the state at 10.3%, but that figure is down from the 13.3% rate in April. Luna County in far south New Mexico reported the highest rate at 13.6%, while Taos County was not far behind at 12.1%.

San Juan County's jobless rate is the third highest in the state, but it is well below the national unemployment rate of 13.3%. The national rate did decrease from the 14.7% percent rate in April.

Economy: County's unemployment rate high, but hope of recovery is on horizon

Church said she was pleasantly surprised to see the jobless rate come down so quickly, something she credited to business owners who made a concerted effort to keep their employees on the payroll with the help of federal stimulus assistance. She said the second wave of the federal funding was especially helpful, reaching a number of local businesses that didn't access the money initially.

"That gave them some confidence and some resources," she said.

Church pointed to other positive signals, as well, such as the reopening of the Animas Valley Mall and the fact that some local restaurants are hanging out "Help wanted" signs.

But she worries about reports of virus flare-ups in neighboring states such as Texas and Arizona, and is trying to keep her expectations reasonable.

"It's going to take a long time," she said of the economic recovery. "As the numbers go up and down, the news is going to continue to be good and bad."

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.

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