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Judge blocks NM ban on indoor restaurant dining

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SANTA FE (AP) — A New Mexico state district court judge on Monday temporarily blocked a ban on indoor dining service at restaurants and breweries across the state.

The temporary order from Judge Raymond Romero in Eddy County suspends the state’s prohibition of indoor restaurant service that was reinstated this month in response to surging coronavirus infections.

A hearing is scheduled on July 30 to consider objections by several restaurants and the New Mexico Restaurant Association to the state’s ban on indoor dining.

Health orders from the administration of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham are being challenged in court on several fronts as businesses fight for economic survival amidst the pandemic and business restrictions aimed at containing the spread of COVID-19.

Romero’s temporary restraining order notes that the governor and health officials did not respond to the lawsuit concerning indoor restaurant dining as of Monday morning.

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In court filings, restaurant representatives have said the industry has not played a significant role in the spread of the coronavirus and that businesses that pose greater potential risks — including gyms, churches and hair salons — continue to operate in confined spaces.

The lawsuit said that restaurants account for eight COVID-19 investigations out of more than 440 in the state. Employment in the state’s restaurant sector has plunged from about 82,000 to 50,000, the lawsuit said.

“The state has failed to offer any reason, let alone clear and convincing evidence, that re-imposing a quarantine on indoor dine-in facilities will, in any way, have a net positive impact on the spread of COVID-19,” the lawsuit added.

Food service permits were suspended last week at seven restaurants in Farmington, Hobbs and Carlsbad that declined to halt dine-in service that regulators describe as a “substantial danger” to customers.

The state on Sunday began offering unemployment benefits to workers who wanted to walk out on three Pizza Inn locations in Hobbs and Carlsbad that defied the indoor dining prohibition.

Pizza Inn owner Michael Moore, who is not a direct party to the lawsuit by the restaurants, said Monday that his three restaurants in Hobbs and Carlsbad continued to offer indoor service a week after the suspension of food service permits by the state Environment Department.

Moore said his New Mexico restaurants employ 90 people who can’t survive financially on takeout service alone.

He said Pizza Inn has taken its own health precautions by removing tables to reduce crowding, implementing new cleaning procedures and ensuring that employees wear masks.

“I’m not forcing anybody to work if they want to step back for a while,” Moore said.