Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
It’s been a hectic few days for Jon Searcy.
The store manager of both Plato’s Closet locations in Albuquerque, Searcy is working overtime to get the stores ready to open by Saturday morning – for the first time in nearly two months.
In preparation for the grand re-opening, Searcy has already installed new instructional signs and plastic barriers to help protect employees from illness.
But other safety measures, including protective equipment like masks, have proven harder to come by. Searcy said he’s still shopping around for enough masks to get the stores through their first full weekend in operation before a new shipment arrives.
“There’s a huge shortage right now, so it’s really hard for businesses to get their hands on it,” Searcy said.
Like a lot of New Mexico retailers, Searcy said he’s working hard to open by Saturday. That is the first day New Mexico is allowing many businesses declared as nonessential to operate since they were forced to close in March.
To open, businesses must meet state criteria designed to keep customers and employees safe.
“The next couple days and the next couple weeks are going to be really interesting,” Searcy said.
The new rules
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Wednesday that retailers in most parts of the state could reopen on Saturday, but only at 25% of their maximum capacity. While the rules for reopening businesses are expected to be finalized Friday, the governor said reopening businesses must provide face coverings for employees and maintain a strict regimen of cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.
She also announced New Mexicans must wear face coverings when in public unless they are eating, drinking or exercising.
A spokesman for Lujan Grisham’s office clarified Thursday that retailers will not be required to ban customers who are not wearing masks from entering their stores, though some stores could adopt such policies on their own.
The governor acknowledged enforcing the face covering mandate will be challenging, and said the state will rely on “extreme positive peer pressure” to enforce it.
“I implore New Mexicans to wear the face coverings,” Lujan Grisham said Wednesday. “The more we do this, the better prepared we are to not go backwards.”
She said it is not yet safe to allow dine-in restaurants, salons and gyms to reopen.
“Your personal decisions will determine whether we move into the next phase,” Lujan Grisham said.
Prepping to open
Stores that reopen in the coming days are each doing so in slightly different ways to accommodate their own specific needs and the state’s mandates.
Some, like The Quarters liquor store at 801 Yale SE, are opening bright and early Saturday morning.
Store owner Connie Nellos plans to open at 9 a.m. Saturday – masks mandatory for staff and customers, too.
“That’s the rule of law right now,” Nellos said, adding he’s purchased extra cloth masks to have on hand for customers who come to the door bare-faced.
“We can do this better than the big box stores.”
Nellos said he had no trouble getting his staff – who mainly work for him part-time – back on the job, and anticipates the short time until his Saturday re-opening will be busy.
“We’re going to restock and have specials ready,” Nellos said, adding: “Hopefully we will get all our customers back.”
Ted Leveque, president of American Home Furniture and Mattress, said each of the company’s locations in Albuquerque and Santa Fe will be reopening Saturday as well, though its Farmington location will stay closed in compliance with the governor’s orders.
Leveque said the stores are planning to operate with limited hours for the time being.
With stores operating at 25% of capacity, Leveque said he plans to bring back around half the staff working in stores to start, though the company’s warehouse will be fully staffed.
Customers without masks will be offered one at the door, and those who decline will not be allowed to enter.
To keep the large stores sanitized, Leveque said, roving crews of cleaners will be wiping down high-touch surfaces every hour, from elevator buttons to vending machines.
“The safety of our customers, the safety of our employees is our priority,” he said.
Some business owners are delaying opening past Saturday.
David Edwards, owner of New Mexico Tea Co. in Albuquerque, said he’s planning to wait until Tuesday to open his store on Mountain Road NW.
Edwards’ current plan is to reconfigure his space to let customers enter through 12th Street Emporium, which Edwards also operates, and limit access to just a small portion of the store. Just three customers will be allowed into the approximately 400-square-foot space at a time, and customers won’t be allowed to smell the tea.
Edwards acknowledged that it’s a change from his prior business model, but added that he’s shifted focus to curbside pickup and online deliveries to stay ahead of the virus.
“In business, often the best innovations come out of struggle,” Edwards said.
Meanwhile, Danielle Foster, who co-owns Bookworks with partner Wyatt Wegrzyn, said Thursday the couple just isn’t ready to open to in-store foot traffic yet, though it will start offering curbside pick-up on Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“We’re just encouraging people to keep ordering from our online website,” Foster said. “Our main goal is just the safety of our customers and our employers.”
Foster said while she has heard that customers miss the in-store experience of the shop at 4022 Rio Grande NW, having an established website in place for about a decade has helped the business hold on in recent weeks, even allowing for robust turn-out to online community events.
“I think it’s just trying to be creative in these days,” Foster said. “The support (from customers) has been amazing.”
The governor’s exclusion of dine-in restaurants from the lightened restrictions disappointed some in the industry, which has already been hit particularly hard by layoffs and closures.
Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, wrote in a prepared statement that more than 200 restaurants have already closed permanently in New Mexico, a figure that could double in the next two to four weeks if the state doesn’t reopen soon.
“In addition, these restaurants provided so much richness and diversity to our state’s food culture it would be a shame to lose them,” Wight wrote.
Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, said he understands the rationale behind excluding businesses that operate with more points of contact.
“(But) the economic pain for those folks is really, really challenging right now,” he said.
Journal staff writers Dan Boyd and Gabrielle Porter contributed to this report.