‘We can’t just stay closed forever’

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Businesses along the southwest corner of Santa Fe Plaza, on October 14. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Back in June – three months after New Mexico was overtaken by the COVID-19 pandemic – Tourism Santa Fe Director Randy Randall was already looking toward the fall months for potential relief.

The initial restrictions and “stay-at-home” orders implemented after the coronavirus started spreading throughout the state had devastated the local economy in Santa Fe, which relies heavily on tourist traffic, especially from those living outside the state.

Randall had said he hoped restrictions would ease over the summer and fall so the city could salvage something out of its dismal tourism season.

“We can’t just stay closed forever,” he said at the time. “To try and stay closed for a year is just insane.”

And while restrictions have expanded and contracted over that time, an explosion in virus cases threatens to close the economy even further as the pandemic enters its seventh month.

Victoria Murphy, from Santa Fe, walks along the Portal at the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe. The Portal would normally be bustling with Native American artists and tourists, but has been empty this summer due to COVID-19.

For Santa Fe, which is nearing the end of its traditional tourist season, it has been a devastating year financially for many. The city reported in September that more than 80 businesses have been forced to close since the pandemic started.

“Santa Fe has probably been hit as hard as anywhere in the state,” Randall said, adding that the length of the pandemic was unexpected.

The evaporation of income from tourists has reverberated across the community.

Visitors window shop at businesses along the southwest corner of Santa Fe Plaza.

Randall said in a recent Occupancy Tax Advisory Board (OTAB) meeting that the city’s Lodger’s Tax revenue is down 60%, due primarily to occupancy limits instituted by the state.

Gross receipts tax, which comprises the bulk of the city government’s revenue, declined by 35% in July and 19% in April, year-to-year. The city has been forced to make sizable budget cuts as a result.

Those businesses left standing are counting on the next tourist season to make up some of those losses. Nancy Hubbard, who works at Shalako Traders vintage jewelry store, said business has been consistently down 75% throughout the pandemic.

“It’s very surreal to look down the colonnade at the portal and see nobody there,” she said. “It’s just empty.”

Rusty and Violet Martin, from Canyon Lake Texas, have lunch in the patio area of the Plaza Cafe in Santa Fe on Oct. 2.

Many neighboring businesses, including other jewelry stores and galleries, now sit empty, with dusty “For Rent” signs in their windows.

All this comes as the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to balloon in New Mexico, with the state setting multiple new records for daily caseloads.

This has resulted in Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tightening some economic restrictions, including a 60% occupancy cap for hotels, and requiring all restaurants and breweries to close at 10 p.m.

The virus has taken a major bite out of Santa Fe’s tourism season.

Currently, everyone traveling into New Mexico must also quarantine for 14 days, which has prompted many to forego trips to Santa Fe. Randall said this group often spends more money, creating an additional concern.

But, despite the surge, Randall said the state should loosen a few restrictions that he claimed specifically target travelers more than local residents. There’s no evidence, he said, to prove that out-of-state tourists have led to any outbreak.

“I don’t think they’re necessary to be quite as severe as they are,” he said of the governor-imposed restrictions. “I have heard nothing about people coming into the state bringing the virus.”

State officials have previously said that it’s very difficult to track and test out-of-state visitors, since many of them leave an area before an outbreak becomes apparent. This makes it hard to know if tourists carry the virus and are ignoring state rules.

Randall said he still believes the rules could be altered slightly, specifically regarding the 14-day quarantine and raising the 25% occupancy indoor dining limit for restaurants.

“I would just continually being trying to tweak it, and taking some risks and monitoring those risks,” he said.

When asked if someone dying from COVID-19 would be worth the risk of reopening the economy, Randall said it would, and compared the risk to that of driving a car on a highway.

“Look at the number of people who die in automobile accidents compared to COVID,” he said.

The most recent data shows 36,560 Americans died in automobile accidents in 2018, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That’s compared to the more than 217,000 people killed by COVID-19 since it first hit the nation in January.

People cross the intersection of San Francisco Street and Old Santa Fe Trail in front of the La Fonda Hotel in the historic Santa Fe Plaza, which is normally filled with tourists.

But city officials have stressed that tourists are needed to help the local economy rebound, and are adjusting operations to make that happen. What little money Tourism Santa Fe has spent on advertising is geared toward New Mexico residents, so they aren’t confined by quarantine requirements.

Randall said hotels have anecdotally told him they’ve seen more in-state guests, but that the real impact – if any – remains unknown. Many local businesses say they haven’t noticed an uptick in that demographic.

“They’re not really our biggest customers,” Hubbard said. “This is Disneyland for somebody from the East Coast.”

Hallie, who works at the high-end clothing store Sign of the Pampered Maiden, and said it’s tough for a business to make it on the Santa Fe Plaza, pandemic or not.

“A tourist economy is a tricky one to navigate and it’s expensive for businesses because you have really high rents,” she said, adding she fears many could go under if the pandemic doesn’t ease.

She also said a key to revitalizing the city’s economy will be if major draws, such as the Indian Market and the Santa Fe Opera, return next year. For that to happen, she believes a vaccine would need to be made widely available by then.

While estimates vary, a vaccine for COVID-19 is not expected to be widely available until the middle of 2021, well into the height of Santa Fe’s tourist season.

For Randall, waiting is not an option. He told the OTAB members that they had to convince Gov. Lujan Grisham to reopen more of the state before another season is lost and businesses suffer even more.

“Somehow, we’ve got to convince the governor’s office, sooner than later,” he said. “If we wait for the immunization to really be effective, we’ll be talking about this a year from now.”

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