Carlsbad restaurants protest state-mandated COVID-19 closures, stay open for indoor dining

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Estefana Gonzales is a single mother of four.

Her children are ages 9, 7, 5 and six months.

To support her family, Gonzales worked at the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant for the past six years.

Her job was stable, but recently Gonzales worried her income could be in jeopardy after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered restaurants to close indoor dining in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Lujan Grisham released the public health order last week to take effect on Monday, as cases of the virus appeared to rise throughout the state.

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In addition to indoor restaurants, indoor seating at breweries was prohibited and state parks were made accessible only to New Mexico residents.

But the efforts to slow the spread of the virus in New Mexico could unduly burden its workers in the food service industry, Gonzales said, after restaurants were already reeling from the previous 12-week closure that was lifted on June 1.

That’s why she and the rest of the restaurant’s staff participated in a protest Monday, at the restaurant which continued to provide indoor seating all day in defiance of Lujan Grisham and the State of New Mexico.

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“It’s hard without our jobs,” Gonzales said. “This is what I depend on for my kids to take care of them. Being a single mom and having all these bills, I’ve been just barely getting by."

Since the Trinity reopened in June, workers were required to wear face masks on the job. Plexiglass shields were built near the front desk and at other high-contact areas of the restaurant.

Menus were thrown away after each use, and hand sanitizer was available at every table.

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The dining room was limited to 50 percent capacity before the second shutdown.

The Trinity worked hard to follow the new guidelines and restrictions if it meant they could reopen, said owner Janie Balzano, in support of its 41 employees and their families.

On Monday, Balzano said turnout at the restaurant was “unbelievable.”

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After it was publicized that the Trinity would be open, she said people traveled from cities like Albuquerque and Las Cruces and from as far away as Durango, Colorado.

At least 50 diners, local residents and elected officials gathered at the restaurant Monday afternoon carrying signs that demanded eateries be reopened.

The protest was part of a statewide effort organized by the New Mexico Restaurant Association which called on restaurants to post photos of their workers and families along with the hashtag #LetUsServe.

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“I think the community understands that how you build a community is having little businesses like us,” Balzano said. “We hope to get the governor’s ear. We should not make these kinds of decisions capriciously. She needs to look at what the economic impact of this will be on the state.”

Eddy County Commissioner Ernie Carlson joined in the demonstration on Monday, and said he came by the restaurant to show support for local businesses he felt were being unfairly treated by the State’s health orders.

Ernest Carlson

“We’re trying to get fairness for the small business people,” Carlson said. “They live paycheck to paycheck trying to support their families. When we take those paychecks away form them, it’s just not right.”

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Carlson said he believed restaurants could operate safely, following the previous health guidelines, and should not be blamed for the spread of coronavirus.

“I understand the pandemic is lethal,” he said. “But we can stop it with the right precautions.”

Owner of Carlsbad’s two Pizza Inn restaurants and another in Hobbs, Michael Moore said his businesses were staying open on Monday and risking fines and enforcement action instead of closing and having to lay off about 30 of his 90 employees.

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During the first closure, Moore said the restaurants survived on federal assistance through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), but that money stopped coming with no successful effort by Congress to resume the relief.

“We just can’t close down at this point,” Moore said. “We’ve been following all the COVID guidelines and we’ll continue to. It’s not fair that we’re being singled out.”

He said he hoped Monday’s defiance would lead the governor to consult closer with the restaurant industry on further actions.

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Customers dine at Pizza Inn on July 13, 2020 despite the State of New Mexico's order that all restaurants cease indoor dining to stop the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s not right that you can go to a big box store, but we’re a danger to the public,” Moore said. “Maybe we can get a dialogue open. We’re not in the situation to close down. We can’t afford it. No one can.”

New Mexico Rep. Jim Townsend (R-54) of Artesia said in a statement that 200 restaurants had closed permanently due to the governor’s health orders and said restaurant industry leaders were inadequately involved in the decision making.

New Mexico Rep. Jim Townsend (R-54)

“This Governor is very well known for bringing a chair to the White House when she felt she needed a seat at the table. What I want to know is why were small business owners not seated at the Governor’s table when she decided to punish New Mexico restaurants and their employees?” Townsend said.

“The unfairness of this administration and their arbitrary decision making will forever change New Mexico.”

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Balzano said the specific decision to close restaurants felt like the industry and small business were being unduly targeted while retail chains like Walmart could stay open.

“There is no data showing that this is coming from restaurants,” Balzano said. “It took every dime of ours to keep it going the last time. We hope to stand up for small businesses. Today it’s ours, tomorrow it could be yours.”

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