Sean Sheehan worked as a server at a restaurant for an entire decade to save up enough money to start his own winery.

When his dream finally came true, his small but growing Albuquerque-based Sheehan Winery flourished, winning awards for best wine in the state.

Those successes came to a halt though, he said, when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. While some other industries have been allowed to open to some extent, the state has kept winery tasting rooms closed — making it even harder for them to cover costs.

“It’s rough, man,” said Sheehan, who had just received approval to open a new tasting room in Red River when the pandemic hit. “It’s definitely stressful.”

Wineries are among a number of New Mexico industries growing increasingly frustrated with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders as the restrictions and the overall economic downturn push more businesses closer to the brink of shutting down for good.

After allowing dine-in restaurants, gyms and other establishments to reopen in early June, the governor put a hold on additional openings originally scheduled for July 1 when the state saw a spike in its COVID-19 transmission rate.

Lujan Grisham then reinstated a prohibition on indoor dining service and began requiring out-of-state visitors to quarantine for 14 days after arriving in New Mexico — a measure severely compromising out-of-state tourism.

When asked about the mandates, many business owners and industry group leaders commended the governor for her COVID-19 response and acknowledged the state’s precautions are necessary to keep people safe.

But as they continued talking, deeper feelings about the matter began to surface.

“The anxiety level is extremely high,” said Rob Black, president of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry. “People are scared and they are frustrated.”

The longer the pandemic wears on, the longer the list of complaints seems to grow.

Business leaders grumble that they believe state officials are implementing some orders arbitrarily or unfairly, that the Governor’s Office doesn’t respond to their queries, that the public health directives can be a moving target and confusing to carry out, and that the state should do more to help small businesses.

“I wish we could have more of a conversation where the business community might be listened to a little bit,” said Ernie C’de Baca, president of the Albuquerque Hispano Chamber of Commerce. “I don’t see that happening.”

C’de Baca could see it happen more this week, however, as Lujan Grisham plans to announce the state will allocate $50 million in federal stimulus funding toward local grants for small businesses harmed by the pandemic.

The grant money could be a life raft for companies that need to rearrange their business models to survive during the pandemic but don’t have the funds to do so on their own, said Dan Schlegel, Lujan Grisham’s small-business and entrepreneurship adviser.

Schlegel acknowledged the frustration voiced by business owners and said the state is doing all it can to help.

“I hear that every day, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “There are a lot of businesses out there that are really on the edge. We try to do everything we can to give them the support they need — by helping them financially or otherwise — and it’s a huge challenge.”

The grant program will be added to two other measures enacted since the pandemic began. A new $400 million fund for “borrower-friendly, low-interest” loans passed by legislators last month is scheduled to become available in August.

And early on in the pandemic, the state created a $100 million emergency loan fund for midsize companies.

The most obvious objector to the governor’s public health orders is the New Mexico Restaurant Association, which is now in a legal battle with the state that has reached the New Mexico Supreme Court.

The association and several eateries filed a petition in state District Court challenging Lujan Grisham’s July 13 order that indoor dining be shut down again.

Restaurateurs have claimed they’re being unfairly targeted, with restaurant association CEO Carol Wight saying the group doesn’t “feel listened to.”

But it’s not just restaurants that are upset. The wine industry, which has had roots in New Mexico dating back to the 1600s, says it’s also being unfairly singled out.

Winery owners say that, unlike some other states, New Mexico has leveled different restrictions on the wine and beer industries, relaxing some constraints on breweries while keeping wine tasting areas shut — even spacious ones in remote, rural locations.

“We’re basically equated to bars, which is ridiculous,” said Chris Goblet, executive director of New Mexico Wine, the association for the industry in the state.

He said the industry’s efforts to communicate with Lujan Grisham’s office on the matter have been fruitless.

“We reached out to their office on June 24 with our COVID-safe reopening plan, and they have patently refused to speak with any of our board members,” Goblet said. “The governor won’t even mention wineries in a press conference. She refuses to even acknowledge the industry exists.”

The Governor’s Office on Friday said wineries are scheduled to return as part of phase two of the state’s reopening plan, which has been postponed because of the rise in COVID-19 cases.

Wine sales have taken a huge dive amid the restrictions, and owners say the glut of inventory could harm grape growers and harvests for future years.

Dixon-based Vivác Winery, for instance, hasn’t been able to offer anything but to-go orders at its Santa Fe tasting room. Sales there are down 50 percent, while the winery’s distribution sales have fallen 75 percent, said co-owner Michele Padberg.



“A major portion of our sales comes from people being able to do a tasting,” Padberg said. “Of course, all of that is seriously down.”

C’de Baca said businesses aren’t getting enough advance warning from the Governor’s Office before it makes changes to its restrictions, and they don’t have time to prepare.

The Hispano chamber president also said that while the state updates its citizens every day on the status of the public health crisis, it doesn’t communicate nearly as much about the corresponding job losses and businesses shuttered.

“We just need to hear the full story,” he said.

In April, the governor appointed business leaders to an Economic Recovery Council that meets every week and was formed to advise Lujan Grisham on reopening the economy.

Yet one member of the council said its members often haven’t been informed about new public health decisions — such as the renewed ban on indoor dining — until right before news conferences.

“She keeps her cards pretty close to the vest,” Brian Moore, a council member who co-owns the Ranch Market in Clayton, said of the governor. “We don’t get involved in a lot of those decisions.”

Still, Moore said the economic council is doing as much as it can to encourage the governor to reopen the economy and counterbalance the influence of the state’s COVID-19 Medical Advisory Team, which he says tends to favor shutting down businesses.

Asked about this, the Governor’s Office said the council meets “very regularly” with Lujan Grisham’s staff.

“Decisions are made quickly in a crisis,” spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said. “We are in a crisis.”

The Governor’s Office also said it replies to as many business owners’ concerns as possible and does take their points of view into account when making its public health decisions.

“We respond to everyone we can,” Stelnicki said.

Asked about disseminating more economic data, the Governor’s Office said the state Department of Workforce Solutions regularly updates New Mexico employment data and releases it to media outlets.

“And on the ‘businesses shuttered’ question, how would you propose the state track that data?” Stelnicki asked. “There’s no mechanism at any level of government for that.”

He did say the Economic Development Department tracks bankruptcies, and there were six filed in June and five so far in July.

Last week, Black said he doesn’t think the state has done enough to help small businesses. He said the recent small-business loan legislation is not sufficient because businesses are reluctant to take on debt during a major downturn.

When told about the state’s plans to announce a $50 million grant program, however, Black said that would change his view of the state’s support for small businesses.

“It would be very welcome if New Mexico used some CARES Act dollars for small businesses,” Black said, referring to the federal stimulus bill. “Doing a grant program would go a long way to helping some of those businesses that are right on the edge.”

Not all business group leaders are critical about communication with state leadership.

Las Cruces Chamber of Commerce President Debbi Moore said that while she hasn’t agreed with all of the public health restrictions, her group has maintained a healthy dialogue with officials.

“As a business leader in our community, you navigate everything to try to reach that mediation point,” Moore said. “You may not agree, but you have a conversation.”

Other business leaders don’t appear to want to talk about the issue at all.

A spokesman for the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce said President Terri Cole was “tied up and unavailable” all week long, denying an interview request and only responding with an emailed comment and digital flyer about the importance of wearing masks.

Businesses in Albuquerque, however, have no problem venting their grievances.

Imesh Vaidya, CEO of Premier Hospitality, said the rule mandating out-of-state visitors quarantine themselves for two weeks has knocked occupancy down to 30 percent at his hotels.

He said members of the New Mexico Hospitality Association have written letters to Lujan Grisham asking her to reconsider the mandate, but they have received no response.

“It’s disappointing, obviously,” said Vaidya, whose company operates numerous hotels around the state. “We’ve given her several pieces of information that the science has not supported this decision. We were expecting more of a response from her.”

Meanwhile, Sheehan’s storage space at his Albuquerque winery is almost full. He is piling bottles he can’t sell almost to the ceiling. His workforce has been reduced from 10 to three — Sheehan, his mother and a high school friend.

“There’s a chance we’ll go out of business, but I’m trying really hard not to,” he said.

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Reporter

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.

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(32) comments

Robert Bartlett

Starting, growing and running a business is the hardest thing anyone can do. It is about hard work, hard work, risk taking and personal sacrifice. The destruction of such a business by political hacks is evil and unforgivable.

Barry Rabkin

The Governor is not destroying any business. The virus is: global pandemic, highly infectious, no vaccine. I am looking forward to voting for her in 2022 when she runs again to be our Governor.

Kathy Cota

boo hoo

Philip Taccetta

Mike Johnson, with the exception of “follow the science”, sounds to me like you’re talking about trump.

Ed Li

So if we were to hypothetically take this NM GOP/NM Restaurant Association/NM Small Business approach to the pandemic

and New Mexico COVID cases and deaths exploded because of it, where are all these idiots advocating for irresponsible reopenings going to stand then?? Will those entities responsible be there to clean up such a disaster? Doubtful! At such a point, for me and many other New Mexicans, the blame will fall squarely on those irresponsibly delusional entities who put profit over our safety. Sorry, not sorry but I’ll take the closure of my favorite restaurants/shops, than the death or illness of a loved one from COVID19. All day, everyday and always.

Mike Johnson

Yes, and as time goes on perhaps more blind people will have the scales fall from their eyes and realize what this Guv is doing to our state and why. Hers is the most opaque and secret administration in our history. Not only does she have dictatorial powers from her unilaterally declared emergency, with no oversight, checks and balances, or accountability, she has formed secret commissions like her health advisory group and the economic recovery group that violate public meetings act regulations and operate in total secrecy, accountable to no one but her. She refuses to answer questions or be accountable, and we have no idea how and why decisions are made, only that they "follow the science", like encouraging and congratulating massive left wing protests and riots, while attacking anti-lockdown protestors, and handing out tickets to car clubs and others gathering in groups of more than 5 people. Her health department reports positive tests and disguises them as individual positive cases, as many positive people get tested multiple times to return to work, get an operation, etc., to pump up the number when she likes. She scolds and blames the restaurants for causing the latest surge, while the NMED "Rapid Response" data shows no such connection, even though the department head claims a "15 fold increase" in responses to restaurants which cannot be found in any data anywhere on their website. She has no credibility as following anything but her political agenda. And of course we all should realize that the vast majority of private business owners are conservatives, many Democrats and some Republicans, the very people she wants to purge and remove from our state. The political motives and agenda should become clear to all but the most left wing partisans, she is out to destroy any business she can.

Barry Rabkin

The US Constitution serves as the final checks-and-balances to our Governor's actions. To date, her actions are constitutional.

Lee DiFiore

MLG and her staff don't care about these businesses or their employees. To her it's all about the power. She won't even tell restaurants where the goalposts are let alone how to get to them. Where is one shred of proof the virus is spread by indoor dining or wine tasting rooms? And the brewery vs. wine tasting room argument is almost as ludicrous as her quarantine for 14 days edict .

Kathy Cota

"Where is one shred of proof the virus is spread by indoor dining or wine tasting rooms?" Why do we need proof?

Lee DiFiore

Well, you think there would be some proof that closing thousands of businesses and putting tens of thousands of people out of work had some merit or some science behind it and was not just the whim of some autocratic government creeps.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup][thumbup][thumbup]

Orlie Romero

Connie since you believe in masks you do realize that at no point you can remove it, ever. Virus is in air you’re dead! Some of you really are DAS...

Bonnie Cox

[thumbup][thumbup]

Barry Rabkin

The objective is to keep people home for as long as possible every day. To accomplish this, it makes sense to limit the number of businesses that any person can visit: so, yes to the Big Box stores because they carry more products. No to smaller stores because people would then have to visit more places. Keep people in their homes for as long as possible every day.

No to indoor dining or indoor wine tasting. People have to take off their masks for too long a period of time. No dart throwing: it is a logical list of where people can not go.

Global pandemic: highly infectious, no vaccine.

Will businesses go bankrupt? Yes. Better than overwhelming our healthcare system, better than infecting themselves and their staff (the business owners and their employees), better than infecting other people, better than putting other people in the hospital, better than killing other people.

Kathy Cota

Finally, an intelligent, selfless voice. Thank you, Barry.

Richard Irell

Actually, quite the opposite of selfless.

Barry Rabkin

I admit I am selfish: I selfishly want to live, I selfishly want other New Mexicans to live; I selfishly do not want to overwhelm our healthcare system, and I selfishly want ALL New Mexicans to use science (and healthcare advise) to guide their daily actions during this pandemic. Yep, I'm selfish.

Kathy Cota

'“I hear that every day, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. ' It's not heartbreaking to me. This is worldwide pandemic. I guess business owners forget this and just think revenue. If businesses can't weather this pandemic due to mismanagement of their business in the past, file chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Or get a loan like everyone else. On a personal level, I have not missed a single small business, not a one, during this pandemic. Ask yourself: "Do I really need a $17 dollar enchilada plate? Do I really need to stay in a $185/night hotel room? Do I desperately need a $75 bottle of wine from a winery? Is all this worth infecting strangers who have families?"

Judith Senda

As always, Connie, you have a lot to say about everyone, but little compassion for anyone.

The real mismanagement here is the Governor, not the hundreds of small businesses that are struggling as a result of her dictates.

Just because others don’t share Chipotle and a bottle of Two-buck Chuck as your idea of a nice night out doesn’t make them less deserving members of the community.

Kathy Cota

@ Judith: I apologize. Didn't know we had such high-class taste among us such as yourself. I suppose the COVID.19 virus bypasses the wealthy, only impacting the Wal-Mart & Chipotle crowd like myself.

Judith Senda

I’m afraid you’ve missed my point, Connie. You’ve used the “$17 enchilada plate” phrase too often. It’s clear you have a some kind of issue with anybody in a higher income bracket, and somehow think that they and those that cater to them should suffer, or at least aren’t worthy of your compassion (if you have any).

Orlie Romero

You stated earlier you can do without eating out, now you go chipotle? Fake

Bonnie Cox

[thumbup][thumbup]

Orlie Romero

How do you infect another who isn’t in the same place your visiting. Logic: if you stay home curled up shaking the rest of us can go on with life.

Orlie Romero

Barry, their are a lot of I’s in your statement. Be an American, be a team, use WE and you’ll see happiness! Breathe in deep, relax and rejoin life.

Richard Reinders

Wineries are no different than Breweries in their operation but Breweries could open not Wineries which shows the Gov. is throwing darts at the problem. Offering loans doesn't help it just digs the hole deeper and you will have a mountain of debt to overcome if you survive. I will bet you personally will be responsible for the loan not the business so it will follow you the rest of your life until you pay it back. It is too bad you can't buy the Gov. like the big box stores that operate at full capacity. It is not essential you buy more compost or build another shelf oh but you are the biggest gross receipt tax providers and I guess that is the price of admission.

Kathy Cota

"I will bet you personally will be responsible for the loan not the business so it will follow you the rest of your life until you pay it back." I bet you are 100% correct. I say tough luck. That's the cost of maintaining a successful business. There is always Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection as an option, which is also the cost of doing business during a worldwide pandemic.

Richard Reinders

Connie all I am saying is when your in a hole stop digging,

Chris Mechels

Now we can appreciate why the Governor was removed, as Secretary of Health, back in 2007, as her opponents for Governor claimed. She's a meddling micro manager, which she explains as "having high standards". I seems she has no "standards", only impulses. I recommend Peter Drucker's "The Effective Executive" to her. He basically describes everything she's NOT. She needs to delegate, but has picked a very weak cabinet, and her staff is pathetic. But after reading Drucker, perhaps she'll get an idea of what management is... we hope.

Kathy Cota

Yes, of course. MLG is gonna run our right now and purchase this dumb book based on your recommendation.

Richard Irell

I’m going to hazard a guess that you never read the book you are calling dumb.

Bonnie Cox

[smile]

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