Restaurants in New Mexico are back where they were for a few days in late May, with limited outdoor seating, but no indoor dining allowed. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham renewed the public health order Monday, citing climbing coronavirus cases. The New Mexico Restaurant Association is pushing back, rallying restaurants statewide to speak out against the order. KUNM’s Nash Jones reports local restaurants with and without outdoor seating vary in their support for the order and are thinking creatively about how to sustain another partial shutdown.
Matthew Diaz is the general manager of Monroe’s restaurant on 4th street in Albuquerque. While sitting in an empty dining room as a single server waited on two tables having lunch on the patio, he said the restrictions feel different this time around, with temperatures topping 100 degrees in town. “Shutting us down to patio in this kind of weather, it’s really shutting us down to curbside carry-out and delivery, which we felt we did a very good job at,” Diaz said. “But it provides enough business to keep you floating just below the surface.”
Monroe’s participated in an online protest launched by the New Mexico Restaurant Association Monday. The association asked restaurant staff to post photos of themselves holding signs urging dining rooms to be reopened, using the hashtag #LetUsServe. They say they received 150 photo submissions, but believe participation was even higher. “Many restaurants can’t survive another shutdown,” said Carol Wight, president of the association. “They’re out of money, they’re out of their loans, and now they have to lay-off their employees again.”
Monroe’s laid off about 75% of their staff in the first round of restrictions. Diaz says they felt confident then that their employees would get unemployment benefits and their jobs would still be waiting for them with the help of a PPP loan. Now, people are looking at an end to the $600 weekly boost to unemployment at the end of July, unless Congress intervenes when they meet next week. So, Diaz says he’s not as comfortable laying off staff at this point. “It takes them a few weeks to re-apply for unemployment, so I think just on a personal level, it’s probably the hardest,” he said. “We’re trying to hang in there.”
Nelle Bower co-owns Frenchish, a fine-dining restaurant in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill, with her partner, Chef Jennifer James. They’re hoping to avoid laying off any of their remaining five employees, keeping up curbside pickup. And they support the renewed restrictions. “We, as a restaurant, are really relieved,” said Bower of indoor dining being prohibited again. “It was troubling to have to police customers who maybe didn’t want to wear a mask. People who we didn’t know what their exposure had been were suddenly in our space, and it felt a little threatening.”
Frenchish has no patio, so their dine-in experience of multiple courses with wine pairings is off the table. While they wish they could do curbside beer and wine sales, they’ve established a no-contact curbside market to remain sustainable. “If they want to order one red bell pepper, you can have one red bell pepper,” said Bower. “If you want $300 worth of groceries for the week, you can totally get that.”
Coda Bakery in Albuquerque’s International District, known for their banh mi sandwiches, isn’t sweating the new restrictions. Their owner, Uyen Nguyen, who’s a former nurse, never opened up their dining room – even when it was allowed, “We said we’re not going to do the tables until there’s a cure,” she said.
Nguyen says not only are they not making lay-offs but they just hired three new people. She says they built out a new online ordering system, spaced out customers’ pick-up times to avoid crowds, and they’re staying busy with to-go orders.
The New Mexico Environment Department reports the food industry makes up 19% of businesses who have had at least one employee test positive for COVID-19, the most of any sector in the state. And the governor’s office says most of those were restaurants. Still, the restaurant association says it’s not fair that dining rooms have to close again while gyms and retail stores stay open.
The governor’s spokesperson, Nora Meyers Sackett, says the difference is about mask use indoors. “Being without a face covering is what exacerbates spread of the virus. And you can’t have a face covering while you eat,” said Sackett.
The Restaurant Association is pursuing legal action to halt the new order, but its president says the group is not calling for restaurants to disobey it. Some have, though: NMED suspended six restaurants’ permits this week for keeping their dining rooms open.
While Monroe’s isn’t one of them, manager Matt Diaz says he understands why a business owner might do that. “I think you’re going to have some folks that that’s the difference between losing their business and not losing their business,” said Diaz. “And you get to a spot where you go ‘I’m going to lose my business either way, I might as well lose it fighting’.”
An environment department spokesperson said Thursday that the six restaurants - two in Farmington, three in Carlsbad, and one in Hobbs - were still defying the order, and that the agency is exploring further legal consequences with the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
On Wednesday, the state saw 330 new confirmed COVID cases, tying with the record high number from June 5.