SOCORRO – Damien Ocampo wears the hat of Socorro High School head football coach, so he draws on this analogy to describe the ever-changing, taxing measures employed to fight COVID-19: It’s like stopping an opponent on fourth down and inches near the goal line “and someone giving your opponent an extra down.”
“I don’t think people realize what this is doing to small town America,” said Ocampo, who also runs a State Farm insurance agency.
That’s especially true in the City of Socorro, residents say, where census figures show nearly a third of the population already lives below the poverty line.
Ocampo’s insurance office is considered essential, in part because it gives financial investment advice. But, these days, it also serves as a window into the community.
“People are coming in here stressed,” he said. “Farmers, ranchers, small business owners, they are cashing out their retirements 10 years early just to keep their businesses afloat. … A lot of people are losing their jobs. I just hope the (federal) stimulus payments do them some good.”
Ravi Bhasker’s take on what the response to the COVID-19 outbreak has done to the city in central New Mexico: “It has turned our world upside down.”
He is in a unique position when it comes to both the health and the economic threat of the pandemic to the town of fewer than 9,000 people. Bhasker is the city’s mayor. He and his wife, Addy, own the Best Western Inn and the Holiday Inn Express, two of the largest hotels in town. And he is a physician whose family medicine practice is on the front lines of the crisis.
As a doctor, he believes measures put into place by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus are necessary. His medical practice has been involved in testing people for COVID-19. There have been four positive tests in Socorro County, but none that he’s aware of in the town itself.
As a business owner and the head of the city’s government, though, he has found the measures put into place a difficult pill to swallow.
It has been almost two weeks since the governor issued a stay-at-home order, closing all nonessential businesses. A previous order limited hotels to 50% occupancy.
As of Thursday, both the 120-room Best Western and the 80-room Holiday Inn Express were closed.
“Other hotels are open,” Bhasker said. “But there aren’t many customers.”
And that is far from how things normally fly during the first weekend in April, when all hotels in the town are usually full for the open house at Trinity Site, where the first atomic blast took place. Trinity Site is only open two days a year, and it’s right down the road on White Sands Missile Range.
The open house has been called off – just like everything else. And far more than hotels are affected.
“We will also miss out on two big weekends for restaurants in our area,” said Deborah Dean, who owns the Bodega Burger Company with her husband. Along with Trinity Site tourists, eateries like hers will also miss out on families coming in for New Mexico Tech’s graduation in May.
So instead of a boost in sales and tax revenue, businesses and local government agencies are beginning to feel the pinch.
“This is having a rippling affect,” said Bhasker, who expects the city’s budget to be “devastated” once the revenue from a surge of buying of supplies at local stores subsides. He said the city was in solid shape financially when the outbreak hit, with a budget surplus of about $340,000 and $1.5 million in reserve.
But if the outbreak meets projections in the state, he said the city could end up in a $1.5 million hole.
Most of the city’s 150 permanent employees are already taking vacation and paid leave to comply with stay-at-home orders. The city’s 15 temporary employees have been furloughed. The library has been closed, as has the city’s rodeo arena, which brings in tourism dollars. The recreation and transportation departments are on call.
Without much needed lodger’s taxes, convention center taxes and gross receipt tax revenue, the mayor said the city won’t be able pay loans it has out for its planned convention center or rodeo arena. He said it also won’t be able to pay the salaries of the arena’s employees and will struggle to pay its share of city employee retirement and health insurance.
Bhasker said he is appealing to the governor to help the city make up for the GRT losses through the state funds he believes should be reserved for a “rainy day.”
“It’s raining,” he said.
Pouring, if you ask business owners.
“Who saw this coming?” said Elias Jacquez, who took over ownership of Desert Diamond restaurant on the southern end of town in February. “This stopped all of our momentum … We’re breaking even, which is about as good as can be expected, right? I’m glad I can pay my employees.”
“Our sales are nowhere close to where we need to be,” said Dean, who also serves as a city councilor. “When the first order came to operate at 50% capacity, our sales decreased by about 50%. Now that we’re closed for dine-in guests, our takeout sales have increased, but that is still only approximately 20% to 25% of our normal sales at this same time last year.”
She has talked with other restaurant owners in town.
“We are all struggling,” Dean said, mentioning one restaurant that has already had to take out a loan.
Most are having to cut staff now that they are reduced to takeout only. And other businesses are having to lay off employees as well. Bhasker said the Best Western has gone from a staff of 22 to four, and the Holiday Inn Express is down to five employees from a staff of 19.
He and Dean voiced a concern that some local businesses may not be able to reopen – an outlook others share.
“The challenge will be starting up again. Being closed is easy. Getting sales when a lot of people have not been working is going to be interesting,” said Leon Miler, who with his wife, Joyann, manages Alamo Gallery and Gifts. It was forced to close when the governor issued stay-at-home orders.
Nonetheless, Dean, Ocampo and Jacquez are among those who believe the community will bounce back.
“I think the community realizes we’re all in this together,” Jacquez said. “Our regulars are keeping us going.”
Residents like Julianna Vote and her family are ordering takeout from different restaurants on a rotating basis to help out. And so are the Ocampos.
“I told my wife I don’t remember eating out, ordering takeout, as much as we’re doing now,” Ocampo said.
Dean said when restaurants are able to reopen dine-in and other businesses reopen “we will celebrate.”
“But it will take some time for things to get back to normal, things will likely not be the same,” she said. “And it will take some time to create that new ‘normal.’ We talk about this being a reset button. Some folks have already talked about making changes.”