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Restaurants Face Challenges As New Mexico Plans Gradual Reopening


The restaurant industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic. This week, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced they can re-open at 50% capacity on June 1. But New Mexico Restaurant Association Executive Director Carol Wight says as many as 6% of restaurants in the state have likely closed for good, and those that remain open will struggle to make it with only half their seating available. She spoke with KUNM’s Megan Kamerick.


WIGHT: We gotta keep our fingers crossed that we don't get any spikes in the virus. And you know that the summer is really good to us. I have heard from some of my colleagues in other states that customers are just more comfortable outdoors. We've got cities like Santa Fe. Santa Fe was really great. They're trying to figure out how to help their restaurants have more outdoor dining if it means that they have to close off a street or allow them to use the sidewalk. I mean, Santa Fe is being really proactive about that.


KUNM: How do restaurants handle ordering food right now?


WIGHT: There is a major meat shortage. The expense, too, I mean, some of it can be very, very expensive. And so you may see restaurants that have changed up their menus a bit. And will have to change the menus as we go forward just to get through this time where we have those shortages.


KUNM: It must be really difficult to plan.


WIGHT: Well, you know, and again, I talked to colleagues in other states, you know, you could be at a 50 percent capacity, but only 30 percent of customers feel comfortable coming. But what I have heard also is that first week you may get 25 percent, the second week of 35 percent. You get more and more as people feel more comfortable going out and exploring this new world that we live in.


KUNM: What have you been hearing from restaurants with regards to accessing things like the paycheck protection program?


WIGHT: We've found it very difficult just because the PPP requires you to be back at like 85 percent of your employees pre-COVID in order to take the relief from that moment. Some restaurants are going to manage it. Some aren't. Some are going to use that loan as a loan and pay it back.


KUNM: Yeah. You have to back to a certain percentage so it can convert to a grant, right? So you don't have to pay it back.


WIGHT: They're in a real critical place right now. And that is they've got to hold on to every bit of cash they have in order to use it for their payroll, their food costs and their overhead. So we're actually going to be looking for more relief from the federal government, as well as some relief from the state government as well. You know, obviously, the state government is hurting. They don't have a lot of money, but they are talking about going into the permanent funds and doing some other things that might benefit small businesses. So we're going to be at the forefront of that.


KUNM: In terms of what they have to prepare for as they're reopening, what does that look like?


WIGHT: You know, a lot of things that we're used to seeing in restaurants you're not going to see anymore. There's not gonna be the self-serve drinks. Right? There's not going to be buffets for a long time. It's going to be a new world and we're gonna have to figure it out as we go, and pray for a vaccine.


KUNM: Are restaurants going to be in the position of asking people to not come in if they're not wearing masks?


WIGHT: We'll have to see how it goes. I'm a little bit leery of the problem because it turns out that, as the restaurant, you're now all of a sudden the enforcement agency.


KUNM: Right now, the state is saying they want restaurants to help them with contact tracing. Do you think the restaurants are going to be able to do that or are they okay with that?


WIGHT: It's going to be mandatory that the restaurant take the information of people that want to give it. So it's voluntary on the part of the customer. That certainly helped us out a lot because there are some customers that just don't want to give up that information. If there's somebody out there that doesn't want to do that, we're fine. But if you're interested in having that contact tracing, we will give you the ability to do that.


KUNM: I'm curious if you've seen any kinds of innovations.


WIGHT: Some of the rural restaurants, they've become grocery stores for their immediate areas. Two of the restaurants that I talked to, one was in Tucumcari and one was in Farmington, they had done such a great job providing groceries to their neighborhoods that they're going to continue that. I think there's going to be a lot of changes and we're going to have to see what some of those are.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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