Large tents and tables with umbrellas in parking lots and seating on the sidewalks under the eaves of buildings are showing up here and there in the city as restaurants are working to bring in revenues during an indoor seating ban.
Neil Roe, one of the owners of Peppers Grill & Bar, said dining spots have been added in the outdoor courtyard area of the Sunwest Centre building on North Main Street.
“That will give us more tables than what we have available just using our patio,” he said.
He said restaurants cannot be profitable without 100% occupancy of indoor seating, but he said that allowing businesses to expand their outdoor service beyond patios will help.
After the initial statewide shutdown of all “non-essential” businesses March 24, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Department of Health allowed indoor seating at food and drink establishments at 50% of building occupancy on June 1. Patio, take-out and delivery service also were allowed.
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But on July 13, the state again banned indoor service at food and drink establishments due to rising COVID-19 cases and infection spread rates statewide.
State health experts have said that restaurants — as well as bars, breweries and wineries — are high-risk environments because they feature closed spaces and close proximity of people and because customers are unable to keep face coverings on while eating and drinking.
The indoor service prohibition is in effect until at least Thursday. The ban prompted #LetUsServe protests throughout the state, as well as lawsuits against the public health orders, with one case now before the New Mexico Supreme Court.
But the city of Roswell is one of the local governments allowing restaurants to expand into outdoor spaces beyond patios if they can do so safely.
The city Planning and Zoning Department processes the free temporary permits. At this time, applicants must apply at the Planning and Zoning Department.
“The location for this outdoor seating must be in a safe location and out of direct vehicular traffic,” said Community Development Manager Bill Morris.
He said that not a lot of permits have been issued so far, but that the city just began issuing them and is looking at other ways to assist businesses.
After receiving local temporary permits, businesses also must apply to the New Mexico Environment Department, which licenses restaurants, and to the Alcohol Beverage Control Division of the New Mexico Regulation and Licensing Department if they hold a liquor license. To qualify, the businesses must generate at least 50% of annual revenues from food sales, according to a letter issued by the Alcohol Beverage Control agency.
The state actually has allowed service expansion to outdoor areas besides patios since May 28, but some businesses were not aware of the provisions. The temporary expansions can be up to 50% of the outdoor area.
The outdoor floor plans have to be reviewed by the state, and some proof needs to be provided that the business controls the outdoor space or has the approval of the owner. In the case of businesses serving alcohol outdoors, a 3-foot barrier around the serving area also has to be installed.
“We are very sympathetic to the businesses,” said Bernice Geiger, public information officer with the Alcohol Beverage Control Division. “We want to do what we can to help them get through this crisis.”
The New Mexico Environment Department referred questions to an online COVID Safe Practices publication posted on the New Mexico Health Department website, www.cv.nmhealth.org.
It indicates that the outdoor dining area has to be open on at least three sides during food and drink service and that tents have to be approved by local officials. It also notes that restaurants and bars have to follow other COVID-19 safety guidelines regarding social distancing, employee hand-washing and face coverings, and regular sanitizing of reusable equipment and materials.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.