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NM indoor dining certification: A race to be safe

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Tiffany Phillips, the front of house manager at The Acre restaurant in Albuquerque, serves Ashlyn Stanton, a traveling nurse from Chicago, at the restaurant on Thursday. Late last week, the restaurant completed the NM Safe Certified process, required by the state to continue indoor dining service during the COVID-19 health emergency. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal )

Today, Oct. 30, is the final day New Mexico restaurants can offer indoor dining without a special certification, and the team administering the training program is working overtime to get as many restaurants as possible compliant before the deadline.

Under the state’s most recent public health order, restaurants must complete the NM Safe Certified program, a free, online training program, to continue offering indoor dining service at 25% capacity after Oct. 30. Restaurants may continue to serve outdoor seating areas at 75% capacity without the certification, according to the health order.

The program utilizes state guidance on how to operate safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, but is managed by a separate organization: the New Mexico Society

Jason Espinoza

of Association Executives. NMSAE executive director Jason Espinoza said the organization, which includes representatives from a wide range of industries, has a limited staff and a team of volunteers to try to get more than 3,000 restaurants certified across the state.

“My team … has really been working 16 hours or more a day,” he said.

Espinoza said the program, which launched in June with a pilot program for the tourism industry, was designed to get employers comfortable with the COVID-safe practices laid out in the state’s All Together New Mexico guidelines.

“It’s not really that easy to train your employees off a 90-page handbook,” Espinoza said.

Espinoza said the training program consists of individual modules targeted at specific types of business, ranging from restaurants to call centers to golf courses. Each module features short videos demonstrating how to comply with the new rules, followed by a short quiz.

Employers must answer each question correctly to move on to the next module. While the modules vary by industry, Espinoza said the program typically takes under an hour to complete. Employers that complete the program receive a seal they can display and a spot in the business directory posted on the program website.

Espinoza said only the owner or manager of a restaurant has to go through the program, with the expectation that they will train other employees.

For other business types, the program isn’t required to continue indoor operations but still has proven useful, particularly for the state’s hard-hit hotel industry.

Tiffany Phillips, the front of house manager at The Acre restaurant in Albuquerque, cleans a table at the restaurant on Thursday. The restaurant recently completed the NM Safe Certified process required to maintain indoor dining service after Oct. 30. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Adrian Montoya, board president for the Greater Albuquerque Hotel and Lodging Association, said the program has helped hotel employees clean rooms and interact with guests without contracting or spreading the virus, while giving customers confidence that the hotels are operating safely.

However, Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said the state’s restaurant industry was slower to adopt the rules initially due to time constraints.

Once the new health order made the program mandatory for restaurants planning to continue indoor dining operations, Wight said the number of participating restaurants skyrocketed. Nora Meyers Sackett, spokeswoman for Governor’s Office, said around 2,500 restaurants have received the certification. Wight said at least 500 more are still going through the process.

“We have so many people calling us and emailing us (about the certification),” Wight said.

Shawn Weed, owner of The Acre, a vegetarian restaurant in the Northeast Heights that received the certification late last week, said he found the program thorough and well laid-out, and said it tied into some of the safety measures the restaurant was already taking.

“The information there was not difficult for me … because we’ve just gone full-bore, doing everything we can to be safe,” Weed said.

Jean Bernstein, president and CEO of Flying Star Cafe, agreed, saying the program provides a useful baseline set of standards for restaurants of all sizes, while acting as a signal to customers that the restaurant is taking their safety seriously.

“It’s saying to customers: we’re doing our part, you’re doing yours,” she said.

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