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NM restaurants brace for colder weather

People have lunch Friday on the patio at the Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe. The patio at the restaurant was almost full on this warm fall day, but when temperatures drop, eating outside is going to become more of a challenge. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – The patio at Cowgirl BBQ was crowded Friday afternoon – as much as legally possible – as owner Patrick Lambert went from table to table.

Lambert’s restaurant, a popular destination in downtown Santa Fe, for the most part has been able to stave off closure during the COVID-19 pandemic – unlike many other eateries in New Mexico.

“We’re doing better than most, but our business is 60% off,” said Lambert, who did have to shut down the restaurant for a few days in July after a worker tested positive for the virus.

That mild success is due in large part to Cowgirl’s large patio spaces, which Lambert can keep at 75% capacity as opposed to the 25% mandated for indoor patrons.

But he and many other restaurant owners remain worried, as the looming cold weather threatens to wipe out any modest gains that outdoor dining has provided.

That threat is especially apparent in tourism-reliant areas such as Santa Fe.

“The colder season is the slow season in Santa Fe, anyhow,” Lambert said, adding that many restaurants rely on outdoor areas to make ends meet.

Many businesses did not even survive Santa Fe’s traditionally busy tourism season – 88 businesses in the city closed from March to August, including restaurants, according to city records.

The downtown location of one of those restaurants, L’Olivier, has already been filled by The Pantry’s third location, which opened for the first time Friday. The Pantry co-owner Stan Singley said he had hoped he could seat more people indoors on opening day.

“I was disappointed to see that COVID numbers were up,” he said. “I was halfway anticipating us being able to maybe go to 50% on the interior.”

Restaurants in Albuquerque are anticipating similar struggles, with some not sure how they’ll survive if they can’t seat people outdoors.

Chris Medina, owner of Holy Burger near Downtown, said he’s considering hiring an architect to design a new outdoor space suited for colder weather, but he’s worried the cost could be prohibitive.

“I know it’s not going to be cheap,” Medina said. “We have six weeks before (the weather) really hits us. So it’s a little stressful.”

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said owners across the state are worried freezing temperatures will drive away what little business they’ve mustered.

“I can’t imagine that I’m gonna want to go outdoor dining when it’s 40 degrees,” she said.

She said some eateries have considered investing in expensive tents to maintain temperatures, which can cost upward of $4,000 a month.

Patrick Lambert, co-owner of the Cowgirl BBQ in Santa Fe, gets contact tracing information from a customer on the restaurant’s patio. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

However, restrictions currently say a space can only be considered “outdoor dining” if it has at least three open sides, making it difficult to regulate temperatures.

Other places are stocking up on space heaters for patio areas, causing a shortage for heaters in stores across the country, according to Slate. Cherie Montoya of Farm & Table in Albuquerque’s North Valley anticipated the demand and stocked a month and a half ago.

“It’s kind of scary,” Montoya said. “We want to keep our customers in a comfortable outdoor space as long as possible.”

Restaurateurs expect a brutal winter for their businesses, especially if indoor dining capacities remain unchanged and the federal government does not provide any more financial assistance.

“It would be a massive downward spiral in revenue,” said Andy Razatos, general manager of the Plaza Café, on Santa Fe’s historic Plaza.

Razatos and Lambert said a sizable reduction in outdoor diners would likely result in staffing reductions, unless other aid is provided.

Wight said she’s hoping the Legislature appropriates money for restaurants during the next session, which starts in January.

Wight also said she thought the state should increase the percentage of customers allowed to eat inside, because other states have fewer restrictions.

Nora Meyers Sackett, spokeswoman for the Governor’s Office, wrote in a statement that restaurants are not inherently dangerous but that having a lot of people without masks in an enclosed area can further the spread of coronavirus.

Lambert said he would not mind increasing his indoor dining capacity – if the science says it’s OK.

“If the environment allows it, by all means,” he said.

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