Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Republican Party leaders and small-business owners called on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to allow more businesses to reopen – with safety provisions in place – to save jobs and limit damage to New Mexico’s economy.
In a conference call Monday, they said the public deserves a clear plan for safely lifting some of the restrictions that have closed gun shops, liquor stores and retail establishments amid the virus outbreak – which has so far contributed to 31 deaths in New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham said her administration is working on a recovery plan to allow more businesses to restart operations. But in an op-ed column she sent to the Journal on Monday, she cautioned that it is too soon to reopen businesses.
“No one is more eager than I am to lift our stay-at-home orders and declare New Mexico open for business,” she wrote. “But as public health experts remind us, we are not anywhere close to that point.”
Her administration, Lujan Grisham said, must balance saving lives and preventing a resurgence of the disease versus limiting the damage to people’s livelihoods.
In the conference call led by state Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce, several business owners said Monday that they are eager to reopen. They argue that they can establish safety guidelines – such as keeping customers 6 feet apart – the same way “essential” businesses that remain open now do.
“I don’t want a loan or a grant,” said Dee Ann Kimbro, who owns a quilt store and other property in Lovington. “I just want to be able to open my business safely.”
A dose of common sense is in order, Pearce said, especially for sparsely populated counties with no or few virus cases. The closures, he said, have disproportionately harmed local businesses.
Under the state Department of Health order, all businesses that aren’t “essential” must be closed to the public. The regulation allows supermarkets, hospitals, hardware stores and similar operations to remain open.
That includes major retailers that sell some food products, but whose inventory covers items ranging from toys to clothes to furniture.
In another conference call Monday, House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said he understands the frustration of business owners. But any decisions to lift restrictions, he said, should be based on the findings of public health experts.
“There are truly life and death consequences to the decisions we are making,” Egolf said.
Jessica Carothers, who owns three beauty salons in Albuquerque, joined Egolf on the conference call and argued that reopening too early could have its own negative consequences. Repeated rounds of openings and closures – necessary as new outbreaks take hold – would further damage consumer confidence and make customers afraid to go out, she said.
“It’s hard, and there is real anxiety,” Carothers said of the closures. But “for me, people’s health and safety are the primary concern.”
Egolf said community bankers are preparing to make $450 million available in loans and other financial help for small businesses.
The state, he said, is also examining whether it would be safe to allow liquor stores to reopen.
The clash over business operations comes as New Mexico enters its fourth week since Lujan Grisham announced the closure of all but essential businesses and instructed people to stay at home.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said small-business owners feel like they’ve been singled out, with no end in sight. Large grocery stores and big-box stores that sell groceries have remained open, while smaller operations that sell, say, firearms or wine are closed.
Restaurants are limited to takeout and delivery.
“I have been inundated with calls from employees who have lost their jobs,” Townsend said.
Kathy Diaz, owner of Monroe’s restaurants in Albuquerque, said on the GOP conference call that she had to lay off 75% of her workforce.
“They’re like family,” she said. “It was hard to tell them we couldn’t afford to pay them anymore.”
Unemployment claims have spiked over the past three weeks, with more than 70,000 people filing for unemployment benefits.
Lujan Grisham said reopening the economy isn’t as easy as it sounds, given the potential for a resurgence that kills more New Mexicans, overwhelms hospitals and necessitates another closure.
“Reopening too quickly means sacrificing many of the things we care about most – and gaining little in return,” she said in her op-ed column. “We have to see this crisis through until it’s genuinely safe to reopen.”