For the first time in nearly a year, people in some parts of New Mexico will be able to order a beer at a bar or take in a show at a theater under a new tier of COVID-19 business restrictions announced Wednesday.
The state has added a turquoise level to its county-based, color-coded system — the “least restrictive level where all categories of business can operate indoors with minimal occupancy limitations,” officials said in a news release.
Turquoise counties will be allowed to expand their indoor dining and operate theaters, bars and clubs.
While Santa Fe County is still in the yellow — falling short of green status by a fraction when it comes to the average daily case count — locals who work in the arts and entertainment world were jumping up and down at the news they may be able to reopen venues in the near future.
“Obviously, this is very exciting,” said Joel Aalberts, executive director of the Lensic Performing Arts Center. “The best part about this is that it is a good indication hopefully of a trend that we’re on.”
All of the arts organizations, Aalberts said, are “eager to get back to work in any way that we can.”
Joe Schepps, a local hotel owner who serves as the Lensic’s vice chairman, also was thrilled.
“The fact that the restaurants, the bars and particularly the performing arts are moving in the right direction is the best news I’ve heard in a year,” Schepps said. “I’m just happy. It just seems like there’s good news everywhere around town.”
To reach the turquoise level, a county must have a test positivity rate below 5 percent and a per-capita case rate of fewer than 8 per 100,000 for four consecutive weeks. Before the modification, the state used a red-yellow-green system in which green counties, those that met the two criteria, had the least stringent public health restrictions.
Catron, Harding, Sierra and Union counties will be in the turquoise category for at least the next two weeks.
Santa Fe County came close to moving from yellow to green, with a test positivity rate of 2.01 percent and a daily case rate of 8.3 per 100,000 residents, just above the threshold. There are 18 other counties in the yellow category, including Rio Arriba and San Miguel counties.
Los Alamos and Taos counties are now in the green, along with four other counties. And there are four counties in the red category.
“I know New Mexicans are tired of COVID-19 — I am too,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “We have made very solid progress in recent weeks and months, and we have all together saved lives and protected our family members and neighbors.”
Still, she warned residents not to let their guard down.
“We can introduce a little more risk, based on our progress, and start to feel a little bit closer to normal — but only if we keep making those safe choices to protect our families and one another,” Lujan Grisham said. “I know New Mexicans are up to the task.”
In a statement, Senate Republicans applauded the changes to the state’s color-coded system, though they said they wished the modifications were more sweeping. They said they sent the governor a letter last week asking her to revise the state’s framework so all restaurants would be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity.
“I am thankful for the Governor’s response and her willingness to retool the framework,” Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell said in the statement. “Moving forward, I hope we will take additional steps to allow small business owners to find stability and consistency, and to eventually reopen at full capacity.”
Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, added: “As immunity increases and cases decrease, our small business owners deserve the opportunity to open without the constant threat of regression. Currently there is no path to that goal. I respectfully urge the Governor and health officials to continue to rework this framework in a manner that sends a clearer message that New Mexico is on the road to recovery.”
Rod Montoya, the House GOP whip, wasn’t impressed with the changes, saying in a statement: “It is time for the Governor to stop playing with crayons, when she should be getting kids back into the classroom and New Mexicans get back to work.”
The New Mexico Restaurant Association was more complimentary of the modifications. Under the revised guidelines, restaurants in turquoise counties can offer indoor and outdoor dining at 75 percent maximum capacity.
“We are encouraged by the changes in the public health order. Adding the turquoise level is promising for everyone since we were only 50% open previously at the green level and had nowhere to go from there,” Carol Wight, the restaurant association’s CEO, wrote in an email.
Cowgirl BBQ in downtown Santa Fe is set to reopen the restaurant portion of its business Monday after being voluntarily closed for the past three months. And it might be able to reopen its bar relatively soon if the county continues to slow its spread of the coronavirus.
“There’s so much pent-up energy for all of us,” said Cowgirl co-owner and company President Patrick Lambert. “We would be out of our minds thrilled” to reopen both the bar and restaurant.