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Contact anxiety

Overturned chairs and empty tables at a closed Brixens Restaurant and Bar in Downtown Albuquerque on May 5. As New Mexico restaurants prepare for a potential reopening of in-person dining rooms, the state has issued a requirement that they collect names and contact information of customers to help contact tracing efforts. Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal.

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A mandate that New Mexico restaurateurs log and store customers’ contact information is raising concerns as the industry gears up to potentially reopen in-person dining rooms in early June.

The rule, which state officials said relates to the need for COVID-19 contact tracing efforts, was one of many requirements and recommended practices announced by the state government late last week as more sectors of New Mexico’s economy start to reopen. Restaurants will be required to “retain a daily log for at least four weeks including the date, name and phone number or email address of all customers and employees who enter the establishment.”

George Gundrey, owner of Tomasita’s and the Atrisco Cafe & Bar, said he is happy to implement a system that collects information from customers on a voluntary basis, but expressed concern about making it mandatory.

“There’s going to be some customers who are very offended by this,” he said.

Jean Bernstein, owner and CEO of Flying Star Cafe, agreed, saying the requirement will be difficult to enforce, and has the potential to put employees in dangerous situations if customers become combative.

“It could end up becoming a difficult scene,” Bernstein said.

Bernstein said the mandate singles out restaurants unfairly, noting that retailers and offices were not required to comply with gathering customer contact information, though it appears on the list of “best practices” for all employers.

“I just wonder why Walmart doesn’t have to do it,” Bernstein said.

At a Wednesday news conference, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said restaurants, along with gyms, salons and movie theaters, could be allowed to open with limited capacity on June 1, provided the state remains on track to meet a series of criteria related to containing the spread of the virus. The state’s current public health order runs through May 31.

However, the Governor’s Office left open the possibility that requirements for restaurants may continue to evolve.

Nora Meyers Sackett, press secretary for the Governor’s Office, wrote in an email that the New Mexico Economic Recovery Council is still consulting with businesses from around the state on how to safely enter the next phase of reopening.

“Contact tracing will be a critical element of living in a COVID-positive world, but the policy continues to be reviewed in advance of the next public health order and could be amended,” she wrote.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said she’s optimistic the governor will make the requirement voluntary. She pointed to a similar issue in Washington, where Gov. Jay Inslee made a similar measure voluntary for restaurants after originally listing it as a requirement. Wight said giving restaurants the option to let customers choose whether to give their information might make the requirement more palatable.

“I think most restaurants would do it on a voluntary basis,” she said.

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