Even as pandemic continues, it's getting easier to enjoy a night out in Farmington area
Entertainment options increase, but crowds slow to materialize
FARMINGTON — Slowly but surely, nightlife is returning to the Farmington area.
With restaurants and breweries throughout New Mexico unable to serve customers inside their establishments for most of the spring, the options for getting out and enjoying a night on the town were all but eliminated. But that has changed over the past several weeks as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has relaxed some aspects of her public health order that limited public gatherings and business operations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many of those dining and brewing establishments have welcomed patrons back inside this month at a 50-percent occupancy rate, and some are even resuming entertainment activities designed to enhance the experience of visitors. But so far, at least, the hoped-for large crowds have failed to materialize at some of those establishments in San Juan County, perhaps indicating that many people remain reluctant to resume normal social activity.
Brandon Beard, owner of the Lauter Haus Brewing Co. in Farmington, said his brewery has met its new 50-percent capacity only once — on the weekend of June 12, when it reopened only its patio. Since then, Beard has been able to open the brewery's interior, as well, leaving him with a capacity of approximately 86 patrons. But he said no more than 40 or 50 customers at a time have shown up, leaving him well short of the number of patrons he could be serving.
"The reason we're not serving as many people still is that a lot of people are not willing to take the risk to go out and be in public," Beard said.
Leonard Trujillo, general manager of Rubia's Mexican restaurant in Aztec, said his restaurant is having the same experience.
"Even at 50 percent capacity, we still have seats available," he said. "We still have not filled the house. … I still think there is some reluctance to going out and going places."
Trujillo said he was hoping for the best when his eatery began serving dine-in customers again after months of being restricted to take-out service only.
"We were optimistic," he said. "But on the flip side, we half expected people to be slow to take that leap."
Trujillo said the customers who have taken advantage of the return of the dine-in option at Rubia's appear to be very enthusiastic about it. He isn't sure what is keeping the rest of his customers away.
"What we are getting a lot of is people who want to be out," he said. "They want to be socializing. They want somebody else to do the cooking and cleaning. Unfortunately, the people who aren't here, we can't get any sort of opinion from them."
Minimizing the confusion
As he navigates the new reality of operating a brewery in the COVID-19 age, Lauter Haus' Beard is the first to admit it's a confusing time — for customers and merchants alike. He noted his business has not received anything in writing from the Governor's Office regarding what it is and isn't allowed to do. So if Beard has a question, his only real recourse is to consult the COVID-19 restrictions listed on a state website.
"It's different for everybody," he said, noting the unique characteristics of most businesses. "We technically fall under restaurants, so we're just going by their guidelines."
Beard has tried to preempt any confusion or complaints from customers by recording a lengthy video that he posted on the brewery's Facebook page. In it, Beard explains that all customers must enter his establishment wearing a face mask, they cannot sit at the bar, they must keep their distance from other customers and they have to put their face mask back on if they move around the bar to use the restroom or play games.
He emphasizes those restrictions have been ordered by the state and his staff has no choice but to respect them.
In the video, Beard notes the other precautions the brewery is taking, including going to a once-every-hour restroom cleaning schedule, the placement of hand sanitizer throughout the brewery, and making paper towels and cleaning products available so customers can wipe down the pinball and video games before and after they use them, just as they would a piece of gym equipment.
Beard also said he has contracted with a new company that is performing a regular spray disinfectant service throughout the brewery that covers all surfaces and kills the COVID-19 virus.
In spite of those efforts, Beard said it is clear that many people remain hesitant to return to a public space with dozens of other customers. He said most of the customers he is seeing are regulars who have supported the brewery since it opened in late 2019. But there are not a lot of new faces, he noted.
Part of that may be based on appearances, he said. He referred to the brewery's segmented parking lot, explaining that it often looks crowded, even when it has only a dozen cars in it. He said some passers-by may think that indicates the brewery itself is operating at capacity.
"That's not the case," he said. "We have plenty of room for more people."
He noted the situation in Farmington seems to be different than it is in Albuquerque, where some breweries are so crowded they have adopted a time limit for their patrons.
"They have lines out the door," he said. "We would gladly welcome that if we could get that."
Beard is doing what he can to give his patrons something to do besides drink beer and converse once they venture into his brewery. He has the usual array of large-screen TVs, and his pinball machines and video games remain available. He also has taken precautions to make his trademark cornhole court safer, reducing it from four games to three to provide for social distancing, asking players to remain seated between throws and encouraging players to bring their own beanbags.
He also has a painting class scheduled for the end of the month. But for now, Beard said he has not scheduled any live music, explaining he has received mixed signals about whether the state allows that. He said he is open to almost any live entertainment activity that doesn't jeopardize the health of his customers.
"If we can make people feel safe, we'll start expanding on our entertainment stuff," he said. "I would like to have some live music within the next month."
In the meantime, Beard is pleased to see his business operating as a social gathering spot again.
"Seeing people laugh and have a beer again makes going home every day a lot easier after the three months when we were shut down and not seeing anybody," he said.
Finding a different approach
Other local businesses have taken a creative approach to providing nightlife options in the COVID-19 age. With its cinemas throughout the state still shut down by the governor's order, Allen Theatres has opened a temporary drive-in operation at McGee Park between Farmington and Bloomfield, and is offering classic films on a nightly basis.
Gates to the drive-in open at 7:30 each night with the films beginning at dark. Concessions and restrooms are offered, and social distancing rules are enforced. Admission is $20 a car, and such films as "Dazed and Confused," "The Hangover," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" and "Selena" are screened.
The Key Club at Aztec High School is screening drive-in movies of its own at the Westside Plaza. It presented "Beauty and the Beast" last weekend.
The area's casinos and wineries remain closed, and its bars are open only for sealed-to-go cocktails, growler refills and package sales. But Rubia's restaurant in Aztec has come up with a different approach to providing live entertainment, securing the use of the city-owned courtyard north of its building, cordoning off a large space and setting up several tables for outdoor dining.
Trujillo, the general manager, said as soon as he gets final approval from the state, Rubia's plans to begin serving wine and beer in the space with dinner, and presenting live music — an entertainment option the 550 Taproom in Aztec and the No Worries Sports Bar in Farmington have offered in their outdoor spaces, as well.
He said the annexation of the spacious courtyard has allowed Rubia's to add 24 seats to its capacity while still observing social distancing requirements, and he hopes the new set-up proves attractive to those who have been hesitant to return to his restaurant since the pandemic began. Trujillo noted that the governor's restrictions do not allow Rubia's to offer bar seating, and he said that fact alone has kept some regulars away.
When Rubia's reshaped its approach to doing business early in the shutdown by adding limited grocery sales to its offerings, it also started having live music on its patio on Fridays as an enticement to customers. Trujillo said that was so well received, he decided to carry it over to the new space.
He is anxious to see if it makes a difference. He noted that one positive that has emerged over the past few weeks is that he is seeing many new faces at Rubia's — something he attributes to an increased appetite for road travel among people across the region.
But Trujillo noted that the new seating and the live music won't matter if so many folks remain unwilling to get out and mix it up socially.
"There's a whole different crowd of people we've been missing," he said. "That little bit of impact we get from the bar seating is not going to be what makes us or breaks us."
Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.