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‘A terrible day’ for NM’s restaurants, bars

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Tables at O Ramen are rearranged to create more space between patrons near UNM. All restaurants and bars in New Mexico have been ordered to shut down except for takeout and delivery. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Everything from steakhouse chain restaurants to neighborhood taquerias will face the same harsh reality in New Mexico starting Thursday: no more in-person service.

As part of her sweeping plan to limit the spread of COVID-19 during the global pandemic, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has ordered all restaurants, breweries and bars to close, except for takeout and delivery orders.

At the same time, she has ordered the closure of indoor shopping malls and required hotels to operate at no more than 50%.

The moves are likely to have significant reverberations throughout the economy as the accommodation and food services industry accounts for more than 97,000 jobs in New Mexico, and retail trade makes up nearly 90,000, according to data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions website.

Albuquerque restaurateur Terry Keene closed two eateries this week: Artichoke Cafe and Farina in the Northeast Heights. His East Downtown Farina location will remain open for now to provide to-go service.

The decisions meant cutting 147 employees.

“There is nothing for them to do, there’s not a restaurant for them to work in,” Keene said.

If the COVID-19 pandemic continues long enough, Keene said those jobs may never come back.

“The most important thing, as far as all of us are concerned, is to get past this coronavirus crisis,” he said. “That may take two weeks, may take two months, may take six months. We don’t know; if it takes longer than a few months … we’re all going to be in a boatload of trouble.”

In Downtown Albuquerque Wednesday, employees of Sushi Hana hung their heads in a silent dining room awaiting the inevitable, while down the street the garage doors of Sister were shut tight on the once-lively patio and the rainy sidewalks were, for the most part, empty.

Jim Peach, an economics professor at New Mexico State University, said the mandated closures and state-level restrictions figure to be particularly hard on local bars and restaurants, many of which have thin margins and limited cash reserves.

“They’re going to be in big trouble, and they’re going to be in big trouble real soon,” Peach said.

Making matters worse, Peach said small businesses may have less access to lines of credit than larger businesses as the crisis worsens.

“If Boeing is having trouble, imagine a local restaurant, a local business, being able to go to the bank and get a loan,” he said.

‘A terrible day’

Keene said he already has bills stacking up that he can’t pay due to lost profits and a stockpile of inventory that’s going to go bad in the meantime. The owner said he now has to weigh the possibility of dipping into retirement accounts or borrowing money to stay in business and keep paying the mortgage on his properties.

“It’s been very hard because of the uncertainty,” he said. ” … We’re not airlines or banks — we’re on our (expletive) own, that’s all. We have to get some help.”

In the meantime, Keene said he bears the weight of those employees who have been “thrown out in the cold” and left to manage unemployment at a time when so many people are depending on it all at once. Keene called the whole situation “a mess” and, although he doesn’t blame anybody, he foresees difficulty in the future, regardless of how long the closures last.

Harry Georgeades, owner of The Bull Ring, a popular steakhouse in downtown Santa Fe, said Wednesday he was considering shutting down the restaurant, anyway.

“It’s been a nightmare for all of our industry. We’re a very fragile business, as you know,” he said, adding that he wanted to keep the place open with his employees in mind. “We’ve tried to do business the last few days, but it’s been impossible.”

Georgeades said The Bull Ring is designed to be a sit-down restaurant and doesn’t offer a take-out menu, so it’s closing.

He called it a “terrible day in my life,” but expressed optimism that things would rebound.

Over at Tomasita’s in Santa Fe’s Railyard district, owner George Gundrey was feeling shaken, calling the situation “absolutely devastating.”

Gundrey, who also has a Tomasita’s in Albuquerque and another Santa Fe restaurant, the Atrisco Cafe & Bar, said he has to lay off about 95% of his 200 employees. He said about all he can do is refer them to the unemployment office.

Gundrey said he’s closing the Atrisco Cafe & Bar until further notice. His Tomasita’s restaurants will stay open for take-out orders.

“At least we’re going to try,” he said. “Really, the only reason we’re doing it is for our customers. They can get the red or green, but they don’t get the margarita.”

Some business owners saw the writing on the wall earlier in the week. Zendo Coffee’s Downtown Albuquerque location — which typically bustles with groups of friends or customers working on laptops — is one of many businesses that went to-go-only ahead of the governor’s announcement Wednesday.

“It’s just been really hard,” owner Pilar Westell said this week. “Financially, we’ve lost a lot of business and I had to make some pretty major decisions.”

Westell laid off all but one of her employees Monday afternoon.

“It’s been probably the most challenging week I’ve had since starting the shop,” she said.

‘It’s hit the fan’

Retailers are feeling the anxiety, too.

Joann Michelback thought business was going to pick up when she moved her handcrafted, Native jewelry kiosk, Native Gems, back into Cottonwood Mall in October 2019. Since the arrival of the coronavirus in New Mexico, the Gathering of Nations, one of her largest events, has been canceled and now the mall is slated to close until April 10.

“It’s very difficult and I don’t know how things are going to be for me,” Michelback said. “Life was good before, but I don’t know about now.”

Michelback’s business has been operating since 1989. She and her husband “are in it together” and maintained the shop in the mall to provide for their three teenage children. Michelback depends on tourism to keep Native Gems afloat and, up until the closure of public schools last week, Michelback said people were still buying jewelry.

“It’s slowly dying down and now it’s hit the fan,” Michelback said.

For now Michelback said she’ll try to move her sales online and “wait it out.” Businesses around her at Cottonwood Mall saw small groups of shoppers on Wednesday, but many kiosk vendors were chatting with each other about what’s going to happen in the future.

Michelback said she believes she’ll get through this and come back. “I’m going to leave it up to (God) and hopefully things will get back to normal,” she said.

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