Supermarkets. Big-box stores. Car dealerships. Doctor’s offices. Restaurants big and small.

These are just some of the sectors of the Santa Fe economy where employees have been infected with COVID-19 in recent days.

Indeed, there seems to be no area of consumer life the coronavirus isn’t touching amid a rapid resurgence in Northern New Mexico and statewide.

The number of Santa Fe County businesses reporting employees infected with the coronavirus nearly tripled in the first half of this month, compared to the same period in September, growing to 97 from 36, according to a New Mexican analysis of state Environment Department data.

That’s largely in line with statewide data showing the number of “rapid responses” — which occur when employers inform the state an employee has tested positive — nearly quadrupled last week compared to a month earlier.

There were 17 new reports in Santa Fe County of businesses with positive cases on Tuesday alone.

“We’re at a point right now where we have these very dramatic growth rates,” said Dr. Jason Mitchell, chief medical officer for Presbyterian Healthcare Services and a member of the state’s Medical Advisory Team, a key unit in dealing with the state’s COVID-19 response.

“Because of that, and because people are out and about,” he continued, “you are seeing a lot more rapid responses.”

Nearly all the other main coronavirus metrics are worsening in the state, too. Officials again reported grim numbers Wednesday — 827 new cases and eight more deaths. The daily count set records for the state and Santa Fe County, which had 64 new infections.

The rapid response figures are unique, however, in that they tell residents exactly where COVID-19 has been.

A slew of Santa Fe retailers have reported employees testing positive over the past couple of weeks, including H&M, Hobby Lobby, Massage Envy and even the Sacred Garden medical cannabis dispensary.

Car dealerships on the list include Fiesta Nissan and Subaru of Santa Fe, while the supermarkets span from Albertsons to Smith’s to Sprouts.

Fast food also has had its turn, with McDonald’s on Pacheco Street, Chipotle on St. Francis Drive, and Church’s Chicken on Sawmill Road all making an appearance.

Bars and fine dining establishments haven’t been spared, either, as Del Charro on West Alameda Street, Cowgirl on Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe Bar and Grill on Paseo de Peralta and Rio Chama Steakhouse on Old Santa Fe Trail also reported cases this month.

Then, there are businesses that pop up on the rapid response list repeatedly.

Whole Foods Market in Santa Fe, for instance, reported three separate incidents of employees testing positive just last week.

That led the Environment Department to put the store on its new “watchlist,” which tracks places of employment that have had two or more rapid responses in the past 14 days.

Target and Walmart in Santa Fe also have had three cases each in October.

Many of these businesses have completed the New Mexico Safe Certification and say they’re doing everything they can to reduce the likelihood of infections.

Take La Casa Sena restaurant downtown, which requires masks, takes the temperature of all guests when they arrive and uses each sanitized rag only one time — to clean just one table — before it is sent to the laundry.

“When we contacted the rapid response team, they actually compliment us because we continuously go above and beyond,” said Rick Pedram, president of Santa Fe Dining, which owns 10 Santa Fe restaurants, including La Casa Sena.

But that isn’t always enough. No matter how many restrictions companies put in place at work, employees are free to act as they please elsewhere.

“It’s just really difficult to control people’s lives outside of work,” Pedram said.

La Casa Sena reported one employee with COVID-19 on Sept. 10 and another Oct. 11.

Positive cases can also increase the workloads of owners and employees as staff counts shrink due to people being sent home.

At Piccolino Italian Restaurant on Agua Fría Street, co-owner Olga Tarango-Jimenez and her brother, also a co-owner, have had to wash dishes since a member of the kitchen staff tested positive earlier this month and two other employees, who ultimately tested negative, went into quarantine.

“Everyone has to work a lot,” Tarango-Jimenez said.

Piccolino has obeyed all state protocols and even gone the extra mile by doing multiple deep cleans. Tarango-Jimenez said she’s urged employees not to attend gatherings outside work and to just stay home.

“You do the best you can at following all the rules,” she said. “And just keep on praying that nobody else gets it.”

Piccolino is operating at 25 percent capacity — a maximum of 15 patrons in a space that normally allows 60 — and also has drive-thru pickup service.

The rapid response process requires a business reporting employee infections to have all who tested positive and others who might have been exposed to them quarantine for 14 days.

Businesses often need to pause operations to disinfect their locations and review their safety practices before reopening their doors to the public.

If many employees have come into contact with a worker who tested positive, a company might have to close. But in many cases, businesses with areas isolated from the infected worker and those reporting the infection of a employee who posed little risk of exposing others can continue operating.

“People’s experience with this is going to vary based on how well they’re implementing COVID-safe practices, the physical configuration of how they operate,” Environment Department Secretary James Kenney said in an interview.

“Our goal is not to say, ‘We don’t want to hear it. Shut down,’ ” he added. “Our goal with rapid responses is to be minimally disruptive to somebody’s operations.”

Statewide, health care, retail and restaurants are the sectors where the greatest numbers of rapid responses have occurred, according to the agency.

That data is backed up by the state’s contact-tracing efforts — people who test positive are telling tracers they recently frequented those types of establishments, Kenney said.

“Why is retail so high?” he said. “Well, people are shopping.”

According to Mitchell, the spike in the rapid response data is one more indication New Mexico is at an “inflection point” in its fight against the virus.

As the number of employee infections and overall cases in the state continue to rise, contact tracers likely will become overwhelmed, meaning it will take longer and longer for them to get in touch with people exposed by newly positive individuals.

Contact tracers already are taking longer than the state’s goal of 24 hours to tell infected individuals to self-isolate, and longer than the target of 36 hours to direct their contacts to self-quarantine, according to state data.

The longer that process takes, the more time COVID-19 has to spread to more employees and residents, Mitchell said.

“The tracers are so busy, they can’t trace them all,” he said. “It just feeds itself. And it’s a huge risk.”


Jens Gould covers politics for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He was a correspondent for Bloomberg News in Mexico City, a regular contributor for TIME in California, and produced the video series Bravery Tapes.

(21) comments

Sasha Nunner

I have shopped for years at Whole Foods and feel very safe shopping there especially in the last few months. They have very good safety practices. Putting the store's picture on the front page sends a wrong message. Let's talk about what people and businesses do right instead of finger-pointing where the rising Covid-19 cases are.

Kenneth Chaney

The masks are supposed to be working to keep the wearer from spreading the virus. So even if the younger generation and others are catching it elsewhere but are diligently wearing it at work, how is the virus spreading as all the comments and the article is insinuating? Insinuating that it's being spread at the businesses.

Bobbie Ferrell

The article refers to Walmart but it doesn't say whether it's the original one on Cerrillos or the Super Walmart out on the far south side. Nevertheless, I'll report an observation. I usually stock up on food at Trader Joe's as I live nearby, they have most items I use, and I've noticed they are good about pacing the line with social distancing, staff are busily cleaning the carts and monitoring number of customers in the store - also large signs with safety precautions noted. About once a month I go to the Super Walmart because it's a one-stop for some additional non-food items I use regulary and TJ's doesn't carry. For months I was impressed with the marked pacing of the lines, staff at the door to monitor if customers are wearing masks and keeping track of pace of incoming customers, and also staff cleaning the cars. I went this past Saturday. I don't mean to single out Walmart just it's the only store I've visited recently where I saw a drastic change. Gone were the safety signs. Gone was the staff at the door monitoring arrivals. Where they had previously marked one-way lanes in the store, the signs were either removed or worn off the floor. It was like any day prior to March. If establishments are relaxing many precautions, no wonder cases are rising. This is anecdotal and again not to single out one store. However, as someone with two risk factors I have been very careful and also have appreciated businesses that have had careful adherence to coronoavirus safety measure. Would be interested if other shoppers have noticed declining adherence to precautions. Or as is cited in the news regularly now, is everyone just "tired of it"? I'm not tired of living. I hope that carefulness will return with the awareness that we are going in the wrong direction. The precautions are really not that burdensome - not like being on a ventilator, for example, or hospitalized for a long period.

John Newhagen

Why doesn't this paper print a comprehensive list of businesses with infections. As a 74-year-old with a heart problem, this is really important. While stories like this may be a nice read, they lack critical details.

Malcolm Murray

[thumbup]. Agreed. No details on which stores and when does not help us.

Don Ric

Here's the page that contains the link to the daily rapid response report. It's in a spreadsheet format, which you can filter by county and city to get the information you want. By the way, if you google "New Mexico Environment Department Covid" this is the top result.

Michael O'Neill

Maybe it's my imagination but it seems like there has been a higher number of out of state licenses plates in town for the past month or so, mainly Texas and California. Do we really believe all these visitors have been quarantining for 14 days before they go shopping, dining, eating, or drinking?

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Bronwen Denton-Davis

"Avoid personal attacks."

Emily Koyama

How come we don't see you objecting when commenters and letters to the editor make daily personal attacks against Trump?

Philip Taccetta

Patricia Kennedy - we must have read different articles. My take away is that all of these businesses are doing their absolute best to try and stay afloat until this pandemic is over. Denying the efficacy of masks is like being a climate change denier, believing that they know better than 98% of the world’s climate scientists. If you think that masks don’t work despite what the majority of the medical community believes, are you smarter than them?

It’s not so much the customers that are shopping and wearing masks or the ones social distancing in restaurants, it’s the employees, especially the younger invincible ones that don’t follow the same protocol with friends and family that they have to do at work.

Mike Johnson

Please cite the peer-reviewed scientific research papers that prove your comment. I'll wait.......

Leonard Trejo

Well said Mr. Tacetta

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Leonard Trejo

That's your takaway, masks do work it's people thinking like you do that don't work

Jane Steinberg

Whole Foods is the only business , to my knowledge,where you have to be a member of their paid membership club, PRIME, to get curbside pickup. Every other business in Santa Fe that offers curbside pickup offers it as a service to our community free of charge.

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Lupe Molina

Comments displaying dangerous, incorrect information should be removed.

Amy Earle

It sounds like you have adopted the insane herd immunity idea and are ignoring what every respected scientist is saying about masks. They do help stop the spread. The problem isn’t customers not wearing masks. It’s people gathering outside the work place and then bringing it to work where they are spending many hours a day with their co workers. It’s people in general ignoring public health guidelines in their private lives continuing with unmasked parties and gatherings. If people would stop doing this our numbers would go down.

Philip Taccetta

Amy, you stated it much better than I did. Masks work!

Donato Velasco

people still failing to follow cleaning and hygiene standards..

Kathy Fish

You really think this is the root of the problem, and not the simple fact that more people are out, spending time together, and interacting?

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