Protesters gather at Carlsbad Pizza Inn, oppose New Mexico closing eateries amid COVID-19

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Kari Putman and her two daughters held up signs that read "We stand with our local businesses in these times of need," and "We say no to giving up our constitutional rights" as heavy midday traffic whizzed by Wednesday on Pierce Street. 

The demonstration was in protest of a State health order issued by New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last week that called for all restaurants throughout the state to close indoor dining areas to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But to Putman, the order that took effect on Monday was a violation of her American rights, and the rights of local businesses. 

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"We're supporting the local restaurants," she said. "I think this is crazy. I just feel like every day our rights are being taken away."

Inside the Pizza Inn, the dining area was full to almost capacity, as almost every booth, table and high top were occupied by diners enjoying lunch from the eatery's buffet. 

Manager Ruben Ramirez said the restaurant, which stayed open along with a second location in Carlsbad on National Parks Highway and another in Hobbs, was taking a stand against the health order which many in the food service industry worried could lead to mass layoffs and permanent closures across the state. 

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The three Pizza Inns and the Trinity Hotel and Restaurant in Carlsbad had their food service licenses suspended on Tuesday after refusing to close – the only eateries cited in New Mexico.  

Kari Putman, of Carlsbad, protests New Mexico's order that restaurants close in order to slow the spread of COVID-19, on July 15, 2020 at the Pizza Inn in Carlsbad.

"I think it's definitely time someone does something to change opinions," Ramirez said. "We've all been quiet for a while and it's time for us to speak. Our community is telling us what we need to do. You see everyone supporting us."

During a Wednesday hearing in Cloudcroft before the New Mexico Legislature's Legislative Finance Committee, Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Economic Development Department Alicia Keyes said the food service industry was most impacted during the pandemic and subsequent health orders. 

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Keyes reported the restaurant industry saw one of the highest rates of unemployment claims, and that the industry along with arts and recreation and mining saw the highest wage loses during the pandemic. 

"You can see the people with the lowest wages are hit the hardest," she said. 

Customers dine in at Pizza Inn despite a state-issued health order to close indoor seating at restaurants across New Mexico amid the COVID-19 pandemic, July 15, 2020 in Carlsbad.

New Mexico Rep. Jim Townsend (R-54) of Artesia, who was at the Carlsbad Pizza Inn on Wednesday eating in the dining room, said restaurant workers need the support of the state and local communities. 

"I think most people see through the fallacy in the decisions that have been made," Townsend said. "The governor has chosen winners and losers and people don't like that."

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Townsend said he expected New Mexicans to continue to rally against the "unfair" health orders, even as the state continued to report more cases of the virus every day. 

On Tuesday, the New Mexico Department of Health reported 227 new cases of COVID-19 and three deaths in the northern part of the state. 

"You're going to see more of this all over the state," Townsend said of protests against the order. "People ought to have the right to make their own decisions."

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He said the four recent citations, all in southeast New Mexico, suggested the region was being targeted by Lujan Grisham's administration. 

Customers dine in at Pizza Inn despite a state-issued health order to close indoor seating at restaurants across New Mexico amid the COVID-19 pandemic, July 15, 2020 in Carlsbad.

"It's made a lot of people mad," Townsend said. "This southeast corner of the state has done everything it can to provide for the state. For it to be targeted is disingenuous. It's a lack of respect."

Eddy County Commissioner Steven McCutcheon joined Townsend at Pizza Inn, questioning what he called the governor's "vast" power under the health orders. 

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"I'm out here to preserve freedom. I just hope the governor recognizes the impact she's having on families and people that provide for their families," McCutcheon said. "I think the governor's power is far too vast under the health order and needs to be checked.

"She can do anything she wants under the guise of health."

Another Eddy County Commissioner John Henry, also owner of Henry's Barbecue in Artesia, said he felt restaurants were being unduly targeted by the health order. 

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He said there was no proof that indoor dining was contributing to the spread of coronavirus. 

Henry said his restaurant built an outdoor patio for seating as allowed by the recent health order. 

"I'm curious how she (Lujan Grisham) narrowed it down to just restaurants," Henry said.

"They just barely got back on their feet and it was pulled out from underneath them. If we keep putting people out of business, that's going to cause more bad health in our economy."

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