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Gov's order rescinding indoor dining creates blowback

Local restaurant owner says he plans to defy mandate

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times
An updated public health order issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham means restaurants around the state once again are not allowed to serve diners indoors.

FARMINGTON — Discontent with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's updated public health order issued last week mandating that New Mexico eateries once again cease offering indoor dining during the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow in San Juan County, with at least one local restaurant owner indicating he planned to defy the order.

Michael Dennis, owner of the Weck's restaurant locations in Farmington and Santa Fe, issued a Facebook post explaining his eateries planned to remain open in defiance of the governor's order.

"We need to know we have the support of 100's of restaurants that agree to band together and stay open this Monday July 13th, 2020," the post states. "Are you willing to risk it? Our Liberty's are under attack."

In the message, Dennis says the governor's order is not about making people feel safe. He argues the death rate is decreasing and testing for the virus is increasing.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

"Our message as leaders in our businesses and community should be one of Personal Responsibility," the message states, encouraging others to join him. "We will work to get the National attention that we need to move this Governor to make the right decision, not one driven by politics."

The message was shared last weekend on the Facebook page of the Farmington restaurant the Chilled Dessert Shoppe by owner Lacey Coleman. Coleman said her post generated a very positive response, explaining that her sales were up 400% on July 11. She said the message she hoped to convey was one of support for restaurant owners who are being negatively impacted by the new public health order, encouraging them to "stay strong, stay open and talking about how unfair it is."

She said the response to her Facebook post indicates there are many people who are on her side and don't agree with the governor.

Coleman said her eatery is allowing customers inside to place an order and watch their frozen dessert item be assembled, but they are required to consume it outside. But she realizes it is not the same for many other restaurant owners.

"Mine is easy," she said of the way her business operates. "Everybody can come in and grab their ice cream and go. Weck's can't. That's just not feasible for other places."

The order also sparked a response from the New Mexico Restaurant Association, an Albuquerque-based organization that supports the food service industry in the state.

"The closure of restaurant dining rooms will cause the permanent closure of restaurants all over New Mexico, and will have an extremely negative impact on the state's economy," the group claims in a press release. "Closing restaurants will leave thousands of people in our state without a job and thousands of families without the income they need."

The NMRA initiated a Text to Action Campaign through which supporters were asked to send the message "#LetUsServe" to the governor and state leaders. It also planned the Peaceful Protest for Dining In for the afternoon of July 13, with restaurant owners asked to assemble with the employees outside their establishments and take a photo to illustrate how many workers would be affected by the new order.

Carol Wight, the chief executive officer of the NMRA, said she had not been in touch with any members in the Farmington area and was not sure how many of them were planning to participate in the protest. But she said the Text to Action Campaign had been very successful, generating 8,000 messages to the governor's office.

She said over the weekend, her organization heard a great deal from members about the situation.

"It was everything from people who just want to defy the governor's order to those that want to comply and think it's fine to be complying," she said, explaining that her organization wants to give its members a voice in the public debate over how to proceed in the face of the pandemic. " … I know we take the virus very seriously, but we see many people whose livelihoods are jeopardized, and I know they're having a hard time complying."

The rollback last week of the governor's order that allowed restaurants to begin serving their customers indoors at 50 percent capacity on June 1 was a serious blow to many of her members, Wight said.

"People needed a way to express themselves," she said, explaining why the NMRA initiated the text campaign and the Peaceful Protest. "They feel very unempowered right now."

Wight said the NMRA's stand is that restaurants should not defy the governor's order, pointing to the hefty fines that have been assessed against eateries that have done so. But she said she understands the frustration of restaurant owners who choose to do so.

"What we're really looking for is a temporary restraining order," she said, explaining that her organization hopes to take the fight to court soon.

Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce.

Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, said she shared the NMRA announcement of the text campaign and protest on her organization's Facebook page on July 13, but she had no sense of how many local eateries were planning on participating.

Church said she participated in a call on the morning of July 13 that involved other chamber officials from around the state and representatives of the governor's office. She said she asked the governor's representatives if they would be releasing data that showed a connection between an increase in COVID-19 cases and indoor dining at restaurants.

"I asked, 'Where is there data to support that decision?'" she said. "They said they were working on that and were going to have something out soon."

Church said she was told the governor's staff has been trying to determine locations where people across the state have been congregating in groups without masks, and restaurants have been identified as one of those locations. That is one of the factors that led to the decision to shut down indoor dining again, she said.

If the governor's office could share concrete data supporting that decision, Church said she believes the decision would be better received.

"The chamber's position is we are trying to advocate for all those businesses, and that's why that data would be helpful for that," she said.

The chamber also is working with Farmington officials on smoothing the permitting process to allow for outdoor dining, she said.

"It's a matter of, 'Can we get the process going so it doesn't take a long time?'" she said. "How can we help (restaurant owners) do it cost effectively or at no cost? The last thing they need to do is invest more money."

Coleman echoed that sentiment, saying she applied in vain for every kind of federal assistance she could identify during the shutdown for the Chilled Dessert Shoppe.

"We didn't get anything," she said. "We got nothing to help us."

She said her business was closed for two months this spring, but she has been able to rebuild her business over the past several weeks to the point that she now has six employees and has moved to a different location. But she said another full shutdown would drive her out of business.

"I can't do it again," she said. "I did it for two months. I abided by all their rules and did everything right. … I even had companies come in here this morning and spray the entire place down so that customers are safe coming here. It's safer to come here than to go to WalMart."

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