New Mexico takes action against Carlsbad restaurants open despite COVID-19 health order

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Four New Mexico restaurants saw their licenses to serve food revoked by the New Mexico Environment Department after the eateries refused to close their indoor dining rooms despite an order from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that they close on Monday to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

All four were in southeast New Mexico.

In Carlsbad, the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant and two Pizza Inn locations on Pierce Street and National Parks Highway had their licenses revoked, while a third Pizza Inn location in Hobbs saw the same fate.

But the restaurants said they would stay open and operate without a state license.

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“Yesterday, the New Mexico Environment Department (NMED) suspended food permits from four restaurants that opened for dine-in service in violation of the current public health orders, endangering the health of their employees and customers,” read a news release from NMED.

“All the establishments provided dine-in service to customers, which presents a public health risk to employees and customers as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said 15 percent of the State’s “rapid responses” to COVID-19 infections on Monday were at restaurants where employees had tested positive for the virus.

“We are grateful to the hundreds of food establishments around the state who are committed to protecting their employees, customers and their industry,” he said.

NMED ordered that the restaurants “cease all operations immediately,” and that if they stayed open they could face legal action from The Department.

If the restaurants comply, their licenses could be reinstated upon request to the Department, the release read. 

“The Food Service and Sanitation Act authorizes NMED to immediately suspend a permit if ‘conditions within a food service establishment present a substantial danger of illness, serious physical harm or death to consumers who might patronize the food service establishment,'” the release read.

Owner of the Trinity Janie Balzano said she was offended by the State’s contention that her restaurant was putting the public at risk, and that it would not shutdown until "physically" closed by the State. 

Balzano argued that Eddy County had only seen one death from the virus, compared with higher numbers in northern New Mexico counties, and the health orders in response to the pandemic should be issued on a county-by-county basis.

“If you can trust us to protect the public from raw eggs, trust us to protect the public from a virus,” she said. “We’ve had one death. Let us look at this county by county.”

The Trinity was taking all the health precautions previously ordered by the state, Balzano said, since indoor dining was reopened on June 1 after the first shutdown was mandated in March.

Employees were required to wear protective face masks and check their temperatures before being allowed to work, while Plexiglas walls were erected near cash registers and in high-contact areas.

Menus were thrown away after each use, and hand sanitizer was provided at every table while groups of customers were seated at least six feet apart.

“Here, you know we’re taking all the precautions necessary,” Balzano said. “At Walmart, you don’t know if they’re taking the precautions.”

Pizza Inn owner Michael Moore said both his locations in Carlsbad and one in Hobbs would remain open indefinitely despite papers delivered by state health officials, who were accompanied by New Mexico State Police Officers, that said his license was to be suspended.

He said the act of defiance was due to the health orders Moore said unfairly targeted restaurants.

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

“We’re going to stay open,” Moore said. “We’re going to take it day by day. We’ll see what the governor says.”

Moore said that Monday saw four times the sales of an average day of business at his restaurants, as supporters from the community flocked to the establishments in support of the protest

“It’s been amazing, the support,” he said. “We’ve been having trouble keeping up.”

“We’ve been wearing our masks, we’ve got our cleaning list,” Moore said. “We’re following all the CDC guidelines and will continue to do so.”

He said he had initially planned to abide by the order and shutdown for the second time amid the pandemic, after restaurants were allowed to reopen dining areas on June 1.

But when Moore started looking at who he was going to layoff, he said his plans became the opposite.

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

If Pizza Inn was forced to close again, Moore estimated he would have to lay off 30 of his 90 employees at the three eateries.

“This just needs to be done,” he said of the protest. “It’s just not right. We can open safely and follow the guidelines. We’re being singled out.”

Monday’s protest was supported by the Republican Party of New Mexico, as Chairman and former-Congressman Steve Pearce called the state’s health order “discriminatory.”

More:Carlsbad, Loving, Artesia react to cancellation of fall contact sports amid COVID-19 pandemic

“We at the Republican Party stand with all New Mexico restaurants that have been suffering or have had to close as a result of the governor’s discriminatory public health order,” Pearce said.

“Unlike the governor, the Party understands that small businesses are the heartbeat of our state’s economy."

He said closing restaurants and other small businesses throughout New Mexico could have a devastating impact on the economy at both the state and local levels.

More:Local law enforcement in Eddy County will not enforce New Mexico's COVID-19 mask mandate

“The governor is again punishing people by closing dine-in services at restaurants, and she is destroying this vital economic engine in New Mexico,” Pearce said. “Her random, haphazard decisions on partial and full closings make no sense and continue to crush our economy and livelihoods.”

New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) of Carlsbad posted a message on Facebook she said she sent a letter to the governor’s office, demanding Lujan Grisham reconsider the order to close restaurants.

In the letter, Brown said her district in southeast New Mexico was largely opposed to the order.

“The Governor’s prohibition of indoor dining at restaurants that will take effect on Monday has triggered a huge backlash in my District,” read a section of the letter. “If this order stands, it truly will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back for restaurants and associated businesses that are now just barely surviving.”

New Mexico restaurants file lawsuit to block COVID-19 closures

That apparent divide between the State’s policies for small businesses and major chains was part of the basis for a lawsuit filed by the New Mexico Restaurant Association this week, seeking to block the closure of indoor dining throughout New Mexico.

Carol Wight, chief executive officer of the Association said the governor’s policies were “hypocritical,” by allowing “big-box” stores to stay open while small businesses such as local restaurants were forced to close.

“The lawsuit is basically questioning the governor’s ability to arbitrarily and capriciously shut down an industry that had nothing to do with the spread of COVID-19,” Wight said. “We’re trying to get an injunction and make the governor understand she can’t be this arbitrary in her decisions.”

Wight said restaurants in southeast New Mexico stayed open because they saw stronger community support in the region, compared with other parts of the state.

“The Association does not condone defying the governor’s order, but we understand their desperation,” Wight said. “They don’t know how they’re going to survive.”

The industry hoped the governor would offer some financial assistance, Wight said, to help weather the economic hardship of the public health orders as restaurants would be forced to throw away previously purchased food inventory if they were forced to close.

She described the industry’s involvement in the policy decision so far as “zero.”  

“One thing we want to ask the governor is that if you’re going to do this to us, we need financial support,” Wight said. “We can’t be her punching bag. It’s not like we can flip on a light and be back in business.

“The governor is not talking to us. She’s just completely tone-deaf.”

But as for the men and women employed to enforce the mandates, the local health inspectors and state police officers, Balzano said any backlash was undue and should be directed at the state’s administration itself.

“The state police and health department are just doing their job and we understand,” she said. “These are good guys and they’re being unfairly targeted.”

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