Carlsbad business leaders call for repeal New Mexico's latest COVID-19 health order

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

Two Carlsbad business development organizations urged New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to rescind key provisions of the State’s latest health order aimed at preventing the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last week, Lujan Grisham ordered that restaurants close indoor dining on Monday, after they were reopened on June 1, as the state saw an uptick in positive cases of the virus and deaths.

She also ordered that out-of-state visitors quarantine themselves for 14 days after entering New Mexico, and that only New Mexico residents be allowed in state parks.

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The recent health order saw backlash from Carlsbad restaurants as the Trinity and both Pizza Inns vowed to stay open despite the New Mexico Environment Department revoking their food service licenses on Monday.

On Wednesday, the Carlsbad Department of Development (CDOD) – a non-profit that promotes business development in the city – approved a resolution urging Lujan Grisham to reconsider the restaurant closures and restrictions on out-of-state visitors.

Restaurants were initially closed in March when the disease was first discovered in New Mexico, and indoor dining was reopened on June 1 but limited to 50 percent capacity.

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

On July 13, indoor dining was again shutdown, but restaurants were given the option of establishing outdoor seating in its place.

CDOD Board President Craig Stephens said many of Carlsbad restaurants could be closed permanently if forced to shut down a second time under the new health order.

“Some of these businesses will not survive a second shutdown, therefore time is of the essence,” he said. “Every business is vitally important to the Carlsbad Department of Development. As such, we have passed this resolution in support of these businesses which have been shut down, many for the second time in six weeks.”

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

Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway said restaurants implemented several new policies to adapt to sanitary standards put forth by the State and the Centers for Disease Control, such as routine temperature checks of employees, seating customers six feet apart, requiring protective face masks and constructing Plexiglas shields at cash registers and server podiums.

“Of any industry in the state, the restaurant industry has displayed the most willingness to adapt to whatever safety precautions are required of them,” Janway said.

“They’ve more than earned the right to stay open by any possible standard, and we support all efforts to get our restaurants back open.”

More:New Mexico restaurants defiant of Gov. Lujan Grisham's order to close amid COVID-19

In its resolution, the CDOD outline several objections to both the restrictions on restaurants and out-of-state travel which the Department argued was to the detriment of Carlsbad’s tourism industry by impacting visitation to Carlsbad Caverns National Park and other nearby destinations.

Outdoor seating was implausible for local restaurants, the resolution read, as July saw temperatures well above 100 degrees and near triple digits into the late evening.

The CDOD also argued that the governor had presented no scientific evidence to show indoor dining contributed to the spread of COVID-19.

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

And the travel restrictions were “discriminatory,” read the resolution, and unlawfully restricted interstate commerce.

In a letter sent to Lujan Grisham from the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce, the Chamber argued the travel restrictions could disrupt crucial summer tourism revenue for the city and closing restaurants could deter visitors.

“The summer season is the economic backbone of this area and tourism is critical to our economy,” read the letter. “In Carlsbad, restaurants and hotels thrive off the annual summer tourism industry brought to us by the natural wonder of the Carlsbad Caverns.”

More:Carlsbad schools plan for returning students to physical classes during COVID-19 pandemic

Chief Executive Officer of the Chamber Robert Defer said he hoped the governor would reverse the recent health order after hearing the needs of Carlsbad’s local businesses.

“All of our small businesses, we want them to flourish and grow,” Defer said. “That’s hard to do when the doors are shut. (The travel restriction) hurts our tourism. It's hurts our retail and it hurts our hotels. People won’t have time to quarantine and still visit.”

The economic harm caused by the health order outweighed the mitigation of risk from the pandemic, read the CDOD resolution, as Eddy County saw fewer positive cases than more populous and northern New Mexico counties such as McKinley, Bernalillo and San Juan counties.

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

In its resolution, the CDOD advocated for a more regional approach to the health restrictions, tailored based on the apparent level of spread in each area of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Department of Health reported 300 new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, with 103 in Bernalillo and 39 in Doña Ana County.

The third-largest increase was in Lea County, which neighbors Eddy County to the east, with 23 new cases.

Michelle Lujan Grisham

Eddy County had 13 new cases, bringing its total to 167 while Bernalillo lead the state with 3,464 cases.

At the start of June when restaurants were allowed to reopen indoor seating, Eddy County had 82 cases and Lea County had 134, meaning the spread of COVID-19 in both southeastern New Mexico counties doubled since restaurants reopened.

More:Carlsbad High soccer coaches react to NMAA postponement due to COVID-19

“The virus has been unleashed,” Lujan Grisham said. “Too many of us are still not wearing masks. Too many of us are still congregating in groups, taking risks with our own lives and endangering the health of our family members, our neighbors and our state.

“This public health crisis has been an overwhelming challenge for all of us – not least business-owners and workers whose lives and livelihoods have been upended as this virus spreads.”

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