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State freezes permits of eateries that defied ban

Customers head toward a Weck’s restaurant in Santa Fe on Monday. The restaurant reversed course Tuesday after initially remaining open in defiance of a revised public health order. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The New Mexico Environment Department on Tuesday suspended food permits for four restaurants that had defied a revised public health order by remaining open for indoor dining.

The permit freeze marks the latest salvo in an escalating food fight between Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration and restaurants, as many restaurant owners have said they feel unfairly targeted by the governor’s decision to halt indoor dining just weeks after restaurants were allowed to reopen.

However, Environment Secretary James Kenney on Tuesday cited several recent instances of “rapid response” state testing interventions launched in response to restaurant employees testing positive for COVID-19.

“We are grateful to the hundreds of food establishments around the state who are committed to protecting their employees, customers and their industry,” Kenney said.

The four restaurants, all in southeastern New Mexico, are three Pizza Inn franchises – two in Carlsbad and one in Hobbs – and the Trinity Hotel in Carlsbad.

The Environment Department’s decision to suspend their permits was based on a state law that allows such action in cases in which a food establishment’s conditions present a danger of “illness, serious physical harm or death” to potential customers.

With their permits suspended, the restaurants must cease all operations or face the possibility of additional legal action. But the permits could be reinstated if the restaurants agree to abide by the revised public health order, according to the agency.

Although some restaurant owners have supported the Lujan Grisham administration’s reimposed restrictions, others have expressed strong opposition.

The New Mexico Restaurant Association, along with six restaurants, filed a lawsuit in the Roswell-based 5th Judicial District Court on Tuesday, seeking to bar the state from enforcing its ban on indoor restaurant dining.

Meanwhile, the lawsuit was filed a day after the restaurant association organized a “Let Us Serve” protest in response to the revised public health order issued Monday by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel that still allows limited patio dining at breweries and eateries.

Restaurant workers and owners from around the state – including Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Gallup and Clovis – took part in the protest by holding up signs in their parking lots and social media pages.

One of the restaurants involved in both the protest and the lawsuit is the Trinity Hotel, which posted on Facebook that its Monday lunch special was a smothered “We the People” steak burrito.

In addition, an online fundraiser for New Mexico restaurants facing state fines for violating the public health order had raised roughly $6,600 as of late Tuesday – well short of its $150,000 goal.

The restaurants with suspended permits did not include two Weck’s restaurants – in Santa Fe and Farmington – that stayed open for dine-in services Monday. The owner of the two restaurants reversed course Tuesday and said he would comply with the state order, after both locations were visited by Environment Department inspectors.

Journal staff writer Pilar Martinez contributed to this report.

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