Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Already pandemic-weary New Mexico businesses, workers and families were bracing Monday for the start of a dark sequel – shutdown part two.
The two-week lockdown – or “reset,” as state officials have described it – was announced last week by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to rampant increases of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths statewide.
But some business owners say the lockdown order could be a financial body blow, especially as it comes during the important holiday season.
Jessica Carothers started her Monday by worrying about the future of her businesses and how her employees are going to survive the shutdown order if it lasts longer than two weeks.
Carothers, the owner of Blo Blow Dry Bar and Waxing in Albuquerque, said the business has not had any cases of infection among her patrons or staff and proudly displays a COVID-safe practices certificate in the entrance of her salon.
“I don’t know what else we could’ve done. We’ve done everything we could,” Carothers said.
Carothers, like other businesses owners around the holiday season, invested in holiday retail, but now all of that will be gathering dust on her shelves.
“I’m panicked for my employees,” Carothers said, adding that her staff is mostly single mothers.
“I want us all to have a job to go to,” she added. “We can’t blow dry hair, do makeup, and wax remotely. That’s not an option.”
New Mexico’s shutdown order that closes gyms, hair salons and restaurants – though eateries can remain open for takeout and curbside delivery – is among the most aggressive measures taken nationwide amid the recent coronavirus surge.
After Lujan Grisham and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced lockdown orders last week, the Democratic governors of Washington and Michigan have followed suit in recent days by enacting similar restrictions.
However, other governors have balked at imposing broad shutdowns due to concern about economic and financial ruin, especially since Congress has not approved a new federal stimulus package in months.
While Lujan Grisham said last week she would call a special legislative session in the coming days to pass measures dealing with expanded unemployment benefits and financial relief for small businesses, some top lawmakers said they had not heard of the plan before it was announced.
The governor acknowledged the challenges the lockdown would impose on New Mexico businesses and families, but said it was necessary to slow the spread of a disease that has now killed 1,236 individuals statewide.
“We believe that two weeks will really give us the opportunity to blunt the virus” and put in place new reopening strategies, Lujan Grisham said during her news conference on Friday.
New Mexico’s unemployment rate has decreased in recent months – it was 9.4% in September – but is still higher than the national average.
The new health order that took effect Monday and runs through Nov. 30 – though it could be extended – also mandates the closure of outdoor recreational facilities, including ski resorts that were preparing to open for the start of the winter ski season.
George Brooks, executive director of Ski New Mexico, said a handful of New Mexico ski areas, including Taos Ski Area and Red River Ski and Summer Area, were planning to open for the winter season before Nov. 30. Those ski areas have each delayed their openings until further notice.
“We understand the magnitude of the health crisis,” Brooks said. “We are disappointed, but understand.”
While Brooks said the delayed start won’t impact safety or maintenance, he added that the closures force ski areas to delay hiring back seasonal employees and incur other expenses.
Reed Weimer, marketing manager for Red River, said the ski area, which had planned to open Nov. 25, is issuing refunds for reservations made during the duration of the closure order.
“It has a ripple effect across different departments for sure,” Weimer said.
With the state looking at shifting to a county-by-county approach to reopening once November ends, Brooks said he’s hopeful that most ski areas can begin operations by mid-December. This would mean minimal disruption for ski areas, like Angel Fire Resort, that open later in the season.
“By allowing us to open in two weeks, we can provide another option for fresh air and outdoor recreation delivered in a socially responsible manner that New Mexicans are desperately needing,” said Greg Ralph, Angel Fire’s director of marketing.
Winners and losers
There are some differences between the two-week lockdown order that took effect Monday and a previous state shutdown enacted shortly after the pandemic hit New Mexico in mid-March.
Under the new order, essential businesses like grocery stores, laundromats and banks are required to abide by a “soft curfew” that requires them to close between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m.
And big-box retailers can remain open since they are considered essential even if they don’t sell groceries or hardware – a requirement under the previous order. But all essential retailers are limited to 25% of maximum occupancy or 75 customers, whichever is smaller.
Despite long lines at grocery stores on Friday after Lujan Grisham announced the two-week shutdown, lines were light or not visible on Monday at stores like Albuquerque’s Westside Walmart supermarkets, Hobby Lobby and Total Wine & More.
Meanwhile, at Jessica Carothers’ now-shuttered waxing parlor in Albuquerque, a tinsel Christmas tree hangs in the lobby along with dozens of gift kits ready to be wrapped for the holidays.
During the first lockdown, Carothers had to shut down for more than two months. To pay her bills she received the Payment Protection Plan loans, but that wasn’t enough.
“I’m sure the governor has very difficult decisions to make, and I don’t envy her, but she has to have a plan that’ll boost these small businesses and their employees,” Carothers said.
Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry, said he empathizes with the frustration that the pandemic and shutdowns are harder on some businesses than others.
“The sad part of this is, the virus picks winners and losers, and if your business model is one that requires you to have close contact, to be in a confined space, that’s how the virus spreads,” Black said. “… It is not fair. The virus is not fair.”
While the current public health order allows employees of non-essential businesses to work remotely from their homes, that’s not possible for all types of work.
Black also said he thinks New Mexicans are often safest at work, when they’re required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing guidelines.
“When we’re on our own time, when we’re meeting with friends, when we’re doing those family gatherings, we’re letting our guard down because we’re tired,” Black said. “… We as a state have to do better.”
Journal business editor Gabrielle Porter contributed to this report.