On Sunday, restaurants that were once packed elbow to elbow with guests dipping chips and sipping margaritas were ordered to not operate at more than 50 percent maximum capacity to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Immediately, waiters and waitresses — the majority of whom rely heavily on tips — said eateries emptied out, along with their wallets.
On Wednesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced all restaurants, starting Thursday, will only be open for takeout and delivery — a decision that, while well intended, has caused many Santa Feans who work in the food industry to feel even more insecure.
“We’re all laid off,” said Austin Flick, a server at La Boca, noting there will be only two employees at the restaurant going forward — one to cook, and one to take calls and provide carryout orders.
“This is the first time I’ve ever seen any of this,” Flick said. “It’s a very surreal and intense time to be alive right now.”
For the thousands of people who now face unemployment, some say they are trying to remain hopeful, reminding themselves that the mass furlough is temporary, while others fear the consequences of coronavirus could be detrimental to their long-term well-being.
“Everybody is going through tough times right now. We don’t know how long it’s going to be,” Abel Martinez, restaurant manager of Dolina Bakery & Cafe, said Wednesday, just hours before the governor announced the emergency order. “I hope this just goes for a couple of weeks and then everything gets back to normal. But for now, we have to be strong and support each other.”
Martinez said things started to shift at Dolina about a week ago, even before restaurants were asked to only serve 50 percent capacity. Up until the middle of last week, he said, a large number of people were not yet practicing social distancing or avoiding restaurants. A few days later, however, “it was like someone flipped a switch. It’s like day and night,” he said.
Last week, this week and next week were supposed to be one of the restaurant’s busiest stretches, given that a majority of Colorado, Texas and New Mexico schools are on spring break. Instead, “it’s been less and less [people coming in] every day,” Martinez said.
Inevitably, shifts were cut, he said, noting most employees saw about a 50 percent decrease in work hours. Instead of a 40- to 50-hour workweek, for example, he was working just 25 hours.
This alone has had serious financial consequences for waiters, waitresses and others in the food industry — especially given that many earn much less than minimum wage and depend heavily on tips. With a drop in consumers, Martinez said, employees’ tips at Dolina have decreased about 30 percent to 40 percent, from an estimated $200 to $130 a day.
For Flick, who makes just over $2 an hour as a waiter at La Boca, his recent paycheck provides a mere buffer without the extra cash.
“It’s pretty scary,” he said. “I have cushion on that end, but that’s not going to last very long.”
Some business owners are working to provide incentives and help employees however they can during the next few weeks.
Flick said La Boca hosted a get-together Wednesday night in which the chef made every employee a free meal. Leading up to the event, he said, management reassured everyone, “We’re all in solidarity together.”
Martinez said Dolina’s owner, Annamaria O’Brien, has looked to staff to take care of any needed maintenance or painting jobs around the restaurant, giving them minimum wage for the tasks. And every employee has been able to come in for a free meal, whether they work a shift that day or not.
“We have a great boss,” Martinez said of O’Brien.
Matthew Yohalem, owner and chef of Il Piatto Italian Farmhouse Kitchen, said he’s trying to do whatever he can for his employees. On Wednesday night, he offered half-price everything to anyone who works in the service industry, and he is brainstorming ways to keep his staff fed going forward.
For however long the emergency order lasts, Yohalem said, he will not offer carryout options. For casual and fine dining spots, he said, “the takeout thing is not realistic” and “curbside pickup is a fool’s errand.”
Yohalem said that if it were up to him, he’d remain open, but “it’s the governor’s mandate. We really don’t have a choice.” So now, “it’s my job at this point to reassure [my staff] that we will be able to open immediately upon permission.”
But when that will be remains uncertain.
La Boca employees said the restaurant likely will be closed for the next two weeks, but “personally, I think it could be a little longer,” said Flick. “All international travel isn’t coming in, so our economy is going to be at a standstill for a while.”
The Shed, which will be closed, according to a Wednesday news release, will continue to sell red and green chile and other goods through its online store.
“We will get through this and we will see you soon,” the news release said.
For however long it lasts, Martinez encourages folks to continue supporting local businesses as much as they can. He said carryout “is the way to go,” noting Dolina, like many restaurants in town, also uses a delivery system — theirs is Fetch — and encourages people to look into these types of options.
While the layoffs certainly stir anxiety and a feeling of helplessness, most say they still feel hopeful and fully support the governor’s decision.
“I’m not resentful,” Flick said of the emergency order. “There’s no right answer [in dealing with this]. I’m proud of how the community is coming together.”