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.