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'It just keeps changing:' New Mexico restaurants decry state's new coronavirus restrictions

Adrian Hedden
Carlsbad Current-Argus

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced more mandates on restaurants in the state Tuesday, hoping to stem the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic by cracking down on business operations specifically at eateries.

Indoor dining continued to be restricted to 25 percent capacity, while restaurants were ordered to close by 10 p.m.

The state also instituted mandatory COVID-19 testing for employees of dining establishments, ordered restaurants complete a safety certification and keep a log of all customers.

Any businesses with four or more rapid response calls within a two-week period would be forced to cease all operations for 14 days.

Those with two or more in two weeks would be added to the state's "watch list."

MORE:New Mexico issues new rules for stores, restaurants as COVID cases spike

Carol Wight, chief executive officer of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, took exception with some of the new protocols but said she was just glad indoor dining wasn’t completely closed again as it was earlier this year.

She said hundreds of restaurant businesses failed amid the pandemic, as the state closed indoor dining in March, but reopened restaurants in June.

On July 13, Lujan Grisham ordered indoor dining close again as COVID-19 case numbers appeared on the rise.  

Restaurants could reopen indoor dining starting on Aug. 29, and Wight said she feared Tuesday’s announcement would bring another shutdown.

“We’re in a hard place here,” she said. “I thought the governor was going to close us down again. She came up with some other mitigation efforts that we can do or close ourselves down. She gave us a choice.”

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Wight said the Association had already advocated for the safety certification and that most restaurants are already implementing COVID-19-safe practices among employees and customers.

She said she asked the state that eateries be allowed to open at 50 percent and close at 10 p.m. in exchange for agreeing to the certification but questioned the legality of requiring customer information to be entered in a logbook.

“The contact tracing, I’m not sure if that’s legal,” Wight said.

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Very few restaurants reported rapid responses for more than one worker, Wight said, which implied that the virus was not being spread at the businesses themselves.

She said the state should alter how cases are reported to avoid positive results being registered to a business where an employee was not present.

“It’s an employee who gets sick somewhere else,” Wight said. “They may or may (not) have gone to the restaurant. They may not have even been sick at the restaurant. It’s a little draconian. For the governor to constantly say restaurants are the problem is just not true.”

MORE:Carlsbad eateries still struggling despite opening indoor dining amid COVID-19

The added requirements and closures devastated the industry and economy throughout New Mexico, Wight said. She argued New Mexico had some of the toughest restrictions on restaurants in the country.

“You can’t control the virus, but you can control the economy and right now New Mexico’s economy is shut down greater than any other state,” she said. “It’s a really dire situation.”

The impact on Carlsbad’s historic Trinity Hotel and Restaurant put the popular restaurant in danger of closing, said owner Janie Balzano.

Balzano said she was grateful the governor allowed restaurants to stay open instead of mandating another closure of indoor seating. 

MORE:Carlsbad eateries barred from service by New Mexico for defying COVID-19 orders

While she said she supported the certification and oversight on sanitization practices, Balzano said she was concerned about mandatory testing for employees.

She said workers could have religious objections to testing or any medical treatment, and that customers would likely object to logging their private information.

“There are people who do not believe in transfusions or inoculations of any kind,” Balzano said. “I’m very concerned about that. I feel like southeast New Mexico will be targeted as we have been.”

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Michael Moore, owner of Pizza Inn locations in Carlsbad and Hobbs said he would not require workers to take COVID-19 tests despite the state’s health order.

“That’s not going to fly,” he said. “I’m not going to force employees to do that. That’s their decision. It’s voluntary if they want to. We’ll put the logbook out, but I don’t think it makes sense to target this industry again.”

As for his business’ continued success, Moore worried the 25 percent capacity requirement was not sustainable for his restaurants or any others across the state.

“I don’t know what the end in sight is. It just keeps changing,” he said. Twenty-five percent capacity is not a model for success for us. We’re just going to keep trying to hang in there. To make ends meet at 25 percent capacity is tough for all restaurants.”

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The new requirements were condemned by the Republican Party of New Mexico, as Chairman Steve Pearce argued the mandates “collapsed” the state’s economy.

“Locking down New Mexico more is not the answer. It’s not going to fix the problem the governor has created,” Pearce said in a statement.

“New Mexicans are strong, good people, but they cannot be forced to live by the governor’s arbitrary rules.”

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Lujan Grisham said the new mandates were meant to target areas most susceptible to transmission — placing where masks could not be worn, she said, such as dining establishments.

“We know that spending time indoors when not at home is a primary vector for transmission,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “We know that spaces where individuals cannot wear masks — such as food and drink establishments — enhance the risk of transmission.”

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