Local restaurant and brewery owners are expressing frustration with new state public health orders that again ban indoor seating at their establishments.
They say they feel that their businesses are being punished unfairly because people statewide aren’t obeying face-covering mandates or other health orders, and they worry that more layoffs and business closures could be coming to an industry that already has experienced significant losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic and its business restrictions.
“It has definitely handicapped our ability to do business,” said Doug Wieser, a vice president of Cattle Baron Restaurants that owns more than 10 establishments, including the Cattle Baron, Pasta Cafe and Farley’s Pub in Roswell.
Wieser explained that the renewed ban on indoor seating affects restaurants such as his in two ways. It hurts food sales, but it also shuts down liquor sales that are part of the dining experience.
Carol Wight, executive director of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, says the group has data showing that restaurants are not a primary source of coronavirus spread and that it is preparing to send a written letter to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham asking that indoor seating be restored.
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Lujan Grisham announced the amended orders Thursday. The new restrictions require face coverings even during exercising, ban contact sports for youth for the fall season and prohibit out-of-state visitors at state parks, but the largest business impacts will be felt by restaurants and breweries.
Lujan Grisham said that she was restricting indoor eating and drinking because people cannot wear face coverings during those activities, and restaurants and breweries fall into the high-risk category described by the “three Cs:” closed spaces, crowded areas and close contact.
Under the amended orders, restaurants and breweries will revert back to only delivery, take-out, curbside service and outdoor dining, with up to 50% occupancy allowed on patios. No expiration date was given Thursday for the public health order, which had not been posted publicly by press time. But Lujan Grisham and other state leaders participating in the Thursday live-stream announcement said that they want to “flatten the curve” again regarding infection spread and daily case numbers.
Currently, New Mexico has had 14,549 people test positive for COVID-19, as of Friday, while Chaves County has had 158. Dr. David Scrase, secretary-designate of the Department of Health, said that the seven-day average of new daily case counts has increased by 79% in the past six weeks.
“We feel it is unfair to be picking out restaurants and blaming us for the spread of the pandemic,” said Robert Johnston, a partner in the locally owned Peppers Bar and Grill, a popular restaurant since 1990. “There is no proof that she has presented stating that the cause of the spread is because of restaurants.”
He added that it is “an emotional roller coaster” for his 47 or so employees, who are wondering if they will be laid off because it is unclear whether take-out, delivery, curbside service and patio dining will generate enough business.
“Roswell is a very giving and diverse community, and we see the community rising up as much as they can, but with all the pressure that has been put on us, it is very difficult going forward in the restaurant industry right now,” he said.
Owners are dealing with a lot of uncertainty, he said, including questions about how long indoor dining will be shut down and whether there could be additional restrictions in the future.
Like other restaurant owners, Johnston said that patio service is better than prohibiting all on-site dining service, but fewer customers can be expected during peak summer temperatures.
“It is going to be really hard for people who have patio dining to get people to sit outside when it is 108 degrees,” he said. “It is almost impossible.”
Johnston and others said they have done what they could to obey COVID-19 safe practices, including requiring face coverings, installing plexiglass shields and banning refills. In the case of Cattle Baron, its restaurants also have closed self-service salad bars, requiring more labor to prepare salads for customers. Some said they don’t think from observing other industries that they have been as compliant.
Kerry Moore, one of the owners of Chef Toddzilla’s Gourmet Burgers, said she fears the amended orders might mean that some restaurants without outdoor seating might not survive.
Moore’s restaurant has never had indoor seating, but she said she is well aware of how extreme weather hampers on-site dining. Chef Toddzilla’s experienced a 50% drop in on-site eating this week as temperatures soared, she said.
She said she is heartbroken over the restrictions.
The industry is “the heart and soul of a community,” she said. “It is where people gather to talk and have meetings and plan events and now they don’t have a place.”
Wieser and C.V. Harris, the owner of Black Cock Brewery, said that they think the orders are unfair to their establishments. Wieser said he thinks the orders were an “overreaction” to spiking COVID-19 case numbers caused by the July 4 holiday and the Black Lives Matter and social injustice protests, where few people wore face coverings.
Harris called the state restrictions “blanket bombing” because areas with few cases are affected due to spiking numbers elsewhere. He thinks it would be better if local government officials were making the decisions based on local data.
Wight said that while the restaurant industry is the state’s second-largest employer, it represented a small portion of the state “rapid response” testing, which occurs after an employer reports a known COVID-19 case.
According to data from May until July 5 published by the New Mexico Environment Department’s Environmental Health Bureau, restaurants have been the sites of 17% of the rapid response tests.
“We are very perplexed about why she would single out our industry for closure,” said Wight, “and we are going to do what we can to get her to reverse that order.”
Harris said his brewery also was notified that it had to cancel all its planned live music performances that had been previously approved by the state, but he said he thinks the business will stay open and is trying some innovations, including frozen alcoholic drinks.
The restaurant and brewery owners said that they understand that public health is the top priority, but they also think the state could find other means to “flatten the curve” than take aim at their industries.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.