Roswell residents and small business owners turned out for the third weekend to rally in support of business reopenings or simply to show support for local businesses when many are experiencing financial distress due to public health orders that have required them to close entirely or restrict their operations.
This time, a caravan of about 40 cars, trucks and motorcycles escorted by Chaves County Sheriff’s Office vehicles gathered early Saturday afternoon in a parking lot in the 1300 block of South Main Street before driving north on Main Street to Pine Lodge Road.
The rally was organized by Concerned Citizens for New Mexico, which also coordinated a large rally downtown on North Main Street on April 18, which involved about 80 to 100 people. An April 25 rally was organized by local elected officials.
“We are just trying to show support for our local businesses that are suffering and in real danger of permanent closure,” said Concerned Citizens organizer Stacy Wolkwitz.
The “Paint the Town Red” caravan was cleared with local authorities, she said, and was publicized through various political groups, as well as bike and car clubs.
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“They can stay safely in their car without any exposure to anything else,” she said. “It is not an official parade. We are not shutting anything down. It is more a free-form caravan of support.”
Events such as these — many aligned with politically conservative groups — have been occurring in many areas of the country on a regular basis during the past few weeks as the financial damages of business closures are affecting people’s lives and ability to pay bills and support themselves.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the easing of some restrictions Thursday that went into effect Friday, but the new guidelines applied only to a few types of businesses and, for most retail operations, limits them to curbside, online or delivery sales. The vast majority of businesses remain closed for the most part until at least May 15, the expiration date of current “stay-at-home” orders. Lujan Grisham and state public health officials have said that significant increases in coronavirus cases in the northwest part of the state require the entire state to continue with social distancing, remote work, stay-at-home practices and the restriction of “non-essential” services and activities.
Chaves County Sheriff Mike Herrington has been issuing letters to some businesses categorized as non-essential to allow them to resume business in some fashion if they can prove they can do so in a safe manner. But, in most cases, business owners said, they have to keep their doors locked to the public and post a “closed” sign, meeting customers by appointment only. State officials have warned that public health orders are state law, and some people in rallies Saturday and in previous weeks talked about being forced to close by New Mexico State Police or officials with licensing boards.
Small business owners shared that they are having to use personal savings to pay business bills, facing possible closure, applying for loans and watching revenues go from thousands a week to less than $50 a week. They continue to emphasize that Roswell and Chaves County, with only 23 of the 3,732 diagnosed cases, is not like the tribal communities or urban areas experiencing high contagion rates and with overwhelmed medical staff and facilities. They also repeat the complaint that big businesses are allowed to sell “non-essential” items while they are closed. Others worry about the effect on the budgets and services of local and state government.
“It is wrong that small businesses are not allowed to open. Here big chains are allowed to open, but we are here, too. It is very sad,” said Luanna Stacy, owner of Alien Invasions on North Main Street, which provides the livelihood for her husband and herself. She said she is trying to adapt by selling essential products, such as toilet paper and pet food, and is working with Herrington about how she might reopen.
Another participant said she thinks the event will help inform people.
“It is bringing awareness. What I have really seen now is that people are becoming more restless, and as people become restless, they become more agitated,” said Diane Taylor. “Even gross receipts taxes — it is more than just a job. It has a trickle-down effect.”
She said people need to be able to earn a living and pay their bills, shop for their needs and obtain medical services. She said she questions the current orders, which allowed pet groomers and veterinarians to reopen, but not hair salons or all medical offices.
“We need to take our community back,” she said, “but we need to do it responsibly and really follow some smart directives” about containing the virus.
A man who works for a local propane company said that, while his company is considered essential, their business activity has slowed down a lot as other businesses close and people stay home from work.
“They aren’t buying gasoline. They aren’t traveling. They aren’t doing much of anything. We still rely on the public,” Brian Austin said.
He agreed with some others that he thinks it is unfair that big chain operations are allowed to operate and have hundreds inside a store at a time.
Jackie Witt, owner of Pecos Valley Tobacco Co., reopened Friday using a drive-through window only, but said that she participated in the caravan in support of other businesses.
“People aren’t staying home. You can tell by the amount of traffic,” she said. “And I went to Home Depot and it was so crowded down there, you couldn’t even get down the paint aisle.”
“Why not let the rest of the places open up?” Brian Austin agreed. “They need to be able to do it responsibly. Treat us like adults.”
Lujan Grisham said during a Thursday press conference that she and members of her Economic Recovery Council are developing a phased plan for reopening. By May 15, she said, if statewide infection rates remain low, other businesses will be allowed to reopen or expand their operations.
Several people at Saturday’s rally said they think Chaves County businesses can open safely now.