Green chile cheeseburgers don’t pass through N95 masks, so bare-faced diners risked shared spaces and surfaces Wednesday to sit down at restaurants for the first time in over two months.
During a state-sanctioned “soft reopening” of restaurants limited to 50 percent of capacity in outdoor seating, Santa Fe restaurant owners and managers said Wednesday was a bit of patio sunshine at the end of a tunnel of takeout.
“Yeah, I was scared. How could I not be? I was concerned about not making money,” Jesús Rivera, owner of Tune-Up Cafe on Hickox Street, said of the start of the COVID-19 shutdown in mid-March.
“We closed for one week and then opened up for takeout,” he said. “The first week of takeout was hardly anybody. Then our regular customers slowly started to come back, and thanks to them, we survived.”
Rivera said Memorial Day was a record day for takeout orders, but the restaurant still only made about half of what it usually does on a summer day. While the staff was cut from around 40 to 10 during the pandemic, Rivera said he started hiring people this week.
Tune-Up, which finished construction on a new kitchen in March just in time to close, had a handful of sit-down diners Wednesday but was mostly still in the takeout business for customers still a little wary of table service.
“How do you sit and eat wearing a mask? I guess you don’t,” said Stacey McMullen, a social worker taking out lunch from Tune-Up. “It’s tricky because I wouldn’t want to use the same pen or go to the restroom at a restaurant, but I definitely miss the social interaction.”
McMullen said she has been limiting her takeout orders to a few go-to spots she trusts, like Tune-Up and Jambo Cafe. Down Cerrillos Road outside Tribes Coffee House on Wednesday afternoon, 76-year-old Barbara Gage said she has taken a different approach, trying around 20 new restaurants during the pandemic.
“The first week or two, I wasn’t sure what to do, but then I decided to try a new restaurant at least once a week to support not chains but the local restaurants,” Gage said over a tuna melt. “I’m open to sitting on a patio now, and it’s all because most of our state hasn’t whined or complained about wearing a mask. I think New Mexico has done a good job.”
A few yards away, the Plaza Café Southside had four tables open.
Manager Robert Morrison said no more than five employees have worked at a time to handle takeout orders during the pandemic, but he hopes to open half the indoor dining room in June.
“Sales are going to tell us everything. We’ve told our staff that we’re going to bring everybody back as soon as we can. If that’s the first of the month, then great. But we have to take it week by week and see what the governor says,” Morrison said. “It’s been a slow start for us today. I don’t think the word has gotten out quite yet that places are open, and people are still being cautious.
“Either way, it’s been really nice to get back to normal. Whatever normal is.”