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Editorial: Listening to NM’s restaurateurs is a good step in recovery

While it is heartening Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham backed off her order to have all dine-in customers provide their name, email and/or phone number to proprietors, it remains puzzling the now-voluntary sharing of personal info for potential contact tracing of the coronavirus applies only to places where you eat.

Meanwhile it does not apply to places where you wander the aisles picking up, and setting down, merchandise. And not where you wait in lines to pay, sometimes with everyone socially distanced and masked, sometimes not.

And the fact it’s voluntary puts into question the overall value of the information collection – in the case of a positive test at a restaurant, the state can tell the folks who left an email or phone number, but everyone else who ate there – or in fact shopped anywhere else – is a potential Patient Zero?

Nevertheless, the governor’s prudent decision Tuesday to not mandate dine-in restaurants gather and store the personal information of customers for contact tracing is an encouraging sign she and her administration are listening to people responsible for carrying out these orders – the restaurant owners themselves. Also on Tuesday the Governor’s Office announced a “soft reopening” of restaurants that takes effect today and which allows limited outdoor dining. Restaurants are slated to resume indoor dine-in services Monday with limited capacity. That’s good news for restaurant owners, hungry New Mexicans and local tax coffers dependent on gross receipts taxes for their budgets.

Those openings will occur under the state’s amended COVID-safe practices for restaurants, which now say all dine-in restaurants must “offer” customers “the opportunity” to record their name and phone number or email address, along with the date and time of their visit. The previous version would have required dine-in restaurants to collect the information and raised even more questions about its implementation, such as would restaurants be precluded from serving non-complying customers, and would customers be required to show IDs for verification.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, told the Journal Editorial Board on Tuesday restaurants did not want to become an enforcement agency for the state, and some customers had indicated they would not provide the information. Wight says she got the ACLU involved in the discussions and together they were able to persuade the governor not to require restaurants to gather customer information.

However, dine-in restaurants will be required to ask for the name, phone number or email address of all customers and employees who enter the establishment and to maintain the logs for four weeks; customer participation will be voluntary. Wight says the information can be solicited nonintrusively, such as leaving a card at tables for diners to complete after their meals.

And that’s important if we want people to go out and support local eateries. George Gundrey, owner of Tomasita’s and the Atrisco Cafe & Bar in Albuquerque, told the Journal’s Stephen Hamway for a May 22 story “there’s going to be some customers who are very offended by (requiring the information).” Jean Bernstein, owner and CEO of the Flying Star Cafe chain in Albuquerque, said the contact-tracing requirement had the potential to put employees in dangerous situations if customers became combative. And Bernstein is right that the governor has unfairly singled out restaurants – “I just wonder why Walmart doesn’t have to do it.”

But two months into a shutdown, Wight says many of the state’s 3,500 restaurants are “thrilled” to reopen and feel they dodged a bullet regarding compulsory contact tracing.

The Journal’s Dan Boyd reports in today’s paper that the original contact tracing had been a plan supported by the governor’s Economic Recovery Council, which meets in secret and contains no restaurant representative.

It will be interesting to see how many customers turn over their personal contact information before ordering a burger and fries or taco plate, and if that information actually helps limit community spread of the virus.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.