Home News Local News ‘Yellow’ designation a hardship for some businesses

‘Yellow’ designation a hardship for some businesses

Paul Thompson says his new brick-and-mortar restaurant, Backdraft Barbecue, which opened three weeks ago, was running smoothly, but that restrictive and changing public health orders represent a “serious hardship” for restaurants in the state. (Lisa Dunlap Photo)

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Some Roswell business leaders are expressing sadness and disappointment over the hardships that will come to their operations and possibly their employees as a result of Chaves County returning Wednesday to the Yellow Level in the state’s COVID-19 risk-assessment measurement.

Chaves County had been at the Turquoise Level, which has the least restrictions regarding business and organization operations, for the previous two weeks. It had been at the Green Level, or medium-risk level, for two weeks before that. The Yellow Level is considered “high risk,” while the Red Level is “very high risk.”

In one example of the impact, the Galaxy 8 Theatre in back of the Roswell Mall on North Main Street is closed again. It had been open for four days from April 16-18 and April 20 after almost a year of being closed due to state health orders.

“We won’t reopen until we get the green. Hopefully we can get back to green,” said Russell Allen, one of the owners of Allen Theatres Inc., which runs the local movie theater as well as several others in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. “Until they figure out a better way, we are kind of at the whim of Santa Fe.”

He said the manager he hired will stay on the payroll and he hopes that the other employees will be able to stay as well. Most of the inventory purchased for the reopening should last for two weeks, he said, but explained that last year they had to take a loss on food inventory.

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He called the situation “disappointing and costly” and said he cannot understand why New Mexico is operating under such strict guidelines, especially when other states with much higher COVID numbers are not. He added that he thinks the state’s actions are harming people’s livelihoods, health and mental attitudes.

The earliest that Chaves County could return to the Green Level is May 5, when the next update of the data used to determine risk levels will be updated by state officials. The Yellow Level designation was given to Chaves County because, from April 6 to April 19, the 14-day average daily case count was 10.5 people per 100,000 population and the positivity rate for COVID tests was 3.66%. The county needs both a positivity rate of 5% or less and a daily average new case count of 8 or fewer people per 100,000 population to return to the Green Level.

The other possibility is that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the New Mexico Department of Health and the Department of Human Services will have implemented a new risk-assessment method. Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase has indicated that the state intends to modify the assessment criteria in recognition that fewer people are getting tested for COVID, which could increase test positivity rates, and to reflect vaccination rates.

Other factors that have changed are that COVID hospitalizations statewide are low, at 120 people, and that COVID outcomes for many people are not as severe as in the early days of the pandemic, which medical professionals have attributed both to vaccines and medical treatments.

Until the data for Chaves County improves or the state adopts modified criteria, local businesses have at least two weeks to cope with more restrictions.

“We are heartbroken and sad that this has happened,” said Andrea Moore, executive director of the Roswell Chamber of Commerce.

She said one positive is that summer weather is returning, which will allow some food and drink establishments to extend their outdoor dining areas and hours.

“We don’t have any specific things to help our restaurants or businesses that are going to have to shut down or go back to less occupancy,” she said. “We are just going to keep doing what we have done in the past.”

She said the chamber has been using its social media sites and publications to promote businesses and is providing information to owners on local, state and federal programs providing relief funds or other assistance.

Moore added, “If it is in our power to help them, we will do what we can.”

Full-service restaurants that depend on full dining rooms for their profits and reopened with full staffs and fresh food in their inventories are among the most impacted when occupancy restrictions change.

Nationwide, restaurant and food service sales were down $270 billion from February 2020 to February 2021, according to information from the National Restaurant Association. The percentage of U.S. adults who went out to eat each week dropped from 59% in February and March 2020 to a low of 16% during the March to May 2020 period. By February and March 2021, the rate was about 37%.

Paul Thompson, a former Roswell firefighter, had a food truck for four years. He just opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant for Backdraft Barbecue at Railroad Avenue and East Third Street three weeks ago. He said that he considers the changing health restrictions a “serious hardship” for dine-in restaurants, which make significant investments in opening or reopening.

Restaurants can now operate at 33% capacity indoors if they have completed the New Mexico Safe Certified program. At the Turquoise Level, the indoor capacity is 75%. The outdoor capacity at the Yellow Level is 75%, same as at the Turquoise Level. But at the current level, establishments that serve food and alcohol have to close by 10 p.m., while bars and clubs cannot be open.

“We have a walk-in that is full of product,” Thompson said. “We hired a full staff that not only we can be proud of that, but that serves the public as well.”

He said the restaurant had been running smoothly for three weeks because of his staff and he has concerns about them.

“Most likely it will impact their world just as much as it impacts ours,” he said.

He said he knows of people who have moved to Texas rather than deal with New Mexico health restrictions, especially as it seems there is “no end in sight.”

“We have states around us that are completely open, operating,” he said. “For us to continue to have to do this open-close-shutdown, it is just going to wreck small business in this state.”

While aid is sometimes available, business owners say that is not always an attractive option for their circumstances. The Restaurant Relief Fund is the latest in federal aid for that industry. It offers up to $10 million grants and is administered by the Small Business Administration, with businesses able to work with partnering groups to submit applications or wait until an online portal becomes available. The Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, also being run by the SBA, helps entertainment businesses and operators. It is in the process of opening its application portal.

Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.

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Lisa Dunlap is a general assignment reporter for the Roswell Daily Record.