Indoor dining is on the outs again.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday closed dine-in options at New Mexico restaurants and breweries for the second time since the COVID-19 crisis began — frustrating leaders and operators in an industry that had just begun to show some life.
“It’s depressing,” said Carol Wight, CEO of New Mexico Restaurant Association. “The governor said this isn’t about restaurants being an unsafe place to go, but this is about punishing the general public by closing down businesses. That’s just unacceptable.”
The governor’s new health order, which takes effect Monday, still allows restaurants to continue patio and outdoor service at 50 percent capacity, as well as the curbside and delivery service that became a lifeline during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. Dine-in was first prohibited in New Mexico from March 19 to June 1.
Lujan Grisham said she made the decision reluctantly, but she added it was a move that had to be made in light of a major rise in cases and the inability or unwillingness of state residents to comply with mask requirements and other restrictions.
“Restaurants did not do this to New Mexicans,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday in a news conference. “New Mexicans did this to restaurants.”
Nevertheless, some restaurant operators said they felt unfairly targeted by the governor, adding they had feared such a decision was in the offing.
“I think that we’re disappointed that the feeling is restaurants are causing an issue — I don’t think that’s the case,” said Katherine Wright, director of the Greater Santa Fe Restaurant Association. “We did send a letter to the Governor’s Office about possibly not punishing us for everything that is happening.”
The effect of such orders is particularly pronounced in Santa Fe, where there are some 400 restaurants. Dining is a $3.2 billion industry in New Mexico.
The New Mexico Restaurant Association’s Wight wrote a letter to the governor Thursday morning in anticipation of a potential shutdown of dine-in options.
“I truly hope the rumors are not true and that you would consult the industry before you made such a sweeping decision,” Wight wrote. “I need you to know that the recovery if you close restaurants now, will not be as robust as it was in June. Restaurants are out of their (federal Paycheck Protection Program) money and therefore would not have the cash to come back from this blow. Already I have heard that six restaurants have closed in anticipation of the rumor.”
Without the ability to bring customers inside, some Santa Fe restaurants will go back to improvising, continuing to use the outdoor spaces. At least for now, outdoor dining has worked, some say.
“For the past few weeks, everyone said it must be patio, patio, patio,” said Jennifer Rios, who owns Santa Fe’s Restaurant Martín with her husband, Martín Rios. “People do not feel comfortable eating indoors. We have not seated one table in the historic building (since reopening May 27).”
Lujan Grisham’s decision was not universally panned. Josh Johns, co-owner of Fire & Hops Gastropub, which reopened July 1, said his restaurant is seeking a permit to allow dining in an outdoor space. It had about half its dining indoors and half on a patio.
“As a conscientious citizen of Santa Fe, it is a right decision,” Johns said about the dine-in restriction. “As a business owner, it’s frustrating. People need to do their part, and they did not do their part.”
Jennifer and Jimmy Day, who own three restaurants in Santa Fe, have yet to reopen any of them, in part because of fears the virus hasn’t been quelled.
“One of the reasons why is we were very concerned for our servers and our people in the kitchen,” Jennifer Day said. “Our constituency is older. We didn’t want to put them at risk.”