Jen Stillions, 45, is taking life "one breath at a time" during the COVID-19 pandemic.
She was laid off from her job as a server at Harry's Roadhouse, where she had worked for 3½ years, and has been collecting unemployment benefits throughout the public health crisis.
"I don’t think any restaurant could guarantee anybody’s safety right now. That’s what we were told anyway," Stillions said.
Though the job loss is a strain, she added, "I’ll be safer and be able to stay alive. I don’t have any idea what’s gonna happen if unemployment runs out, but it’s gonna be great to be alive."
Stillions is one of thousands of service workers across New Mexico who have been affected by the pandemic's economic toll.
While many returned to work after the state slowly eased business restrictions first imposed in March, hundreds have been laid off in recent days in response to a two-week lockdown that many fear could become a prolonged shutdown as the virus surges to unprecedented levels.
The state saw a record-breaking daily count of COVID-19 cases last week that rose above 3,600 and several days of cases nearing 3,000 — far higher than counts above 1,000 a day that prompted the current lockdown.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who said the state is at a "breaking point" that could lead to permanent business closures without government intervention, called for a special legislative session to address the crisis. The Legislature will convene Tuesday for what is expected to be a one-day session to approve a package of aid measures for unemployed New Mexicans and struggling businesses.
The plan is to use about $300 million in federal CARES Act funding for housing aid, unemployment enhancement payments and grants for small businesses. The money must be distributed before the end of 2020.
Federal stimulus funds approved in the first months of the pandemic gave many businesses a boost that allowed them to keep employees on the payroll even if they couldn't work due to a shutdown. Beefed-up unemployment benefits approved by Congress also filled a gap for jobless workers, including self-employed and gig workers who weren't covered under states' regular unemployment insurance programs.
But it's been close to four months since the $600 extra weekly federal payments to millions of jobless Americans expired, and businesses don't have another round of federal aid to pay employees.
"The problem lies with the federal government dropping the ball. We need a second bailout," said Christopher Erickson, interim head of the economics department at New Mexico State University.
The long-term projections without more federal aid?
"It's not gonna be pretty. It's pretty bleak," Erickson said.
Rob Black, president of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, also painted a grim portrait of the future of the state's restaurant, hospitality and retail industries without an infusion of state and federal aid.
"It looks like a lot of empty store fronts, a lot of empty mall areas," he said. "It looks like a lot of people in unemployment lines and a lot of foreclosures. It will create a very difficult hole for people to crawl their way out of."
The current lockdown, scheduled to last through the Thanksgiving weekend, has forced businesses to make tough decisions. Restaurants can only offer takeout and delivery service, and a range of retailers and other businesses deemed nonessential had to close.
Patrick Lambert, owner of Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe, said he decided to close for three months rather than wait to see if the two-week order led to a longer shutdown. It wasn't financially viable to stay open with only takeout and delivery, he said.
Cowgirl laid off 75 employees.
"It’s devastating," Lambert said. "We’re a 27-year-old, established business. We’re professionals. We know how to run a restaurant, and this environment, we feel, is an impossible environment."
Lambert said he doesn't criticize the governor for making the call.
"It's unsafe to operate right now, in my opinion," he said. "There's no question — it's dangerous."
The Inn of the Governors and Del Charro restaurant laid off between 30 and 40 employees after the lockdown announcement, general manager Sam Gerberding said.
The Range Cafe, which has multiple locations in Albuquerque and one in Bernalillo and one in Los Lunas, has laid off about 200 people, according to owner and founder Matt DiGregory.
Before COVID-19, the Range Cafe employed about 550 people, DiGregory said. The chain is now down to about 50 employees.
"Obviously no, we can’t survive if it goes on much longer," DiGregory said. "Even at 25 percent [indoor dining capacity], you’re losing money because your overhead is at 100 percent. My banker calls and says, ‘So what’s your plan?’ There is no plan here."
But DiGregory agrees it's not safe for restaurants to operate right now, as COVID-19 cases rise at an alarming rate and the surge shows no sign of decreasing.
Kim Alderwick and Shane Miller, co-owners of Miller Gym on Pacheco Street in Santa Fe, said they are trying to find a way to weather the current lockdown.
They've survived the state's earlier shutdown and ongoing restrictions, they said, thanks to a generous landlord and forgiving clients who agreed to split the cost of lost time for memberships they can't use during the lockdown.
“We would rather not shut down permanently, because we think we have a good business model that has been successful and growing," Miller said. "If we can survive that long, it seems worth it rather than shutting down."