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Closures of NM groceries raise concerns

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Dozens of people wait in line at the Albertsons on Zafarano Drive in Santa Fe. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Anna Hagele typically shops for groceries for her and her four children at the Walmart Supercenter on Herrera Drive in Santa Fe because she likes the prices.

However, on Friday, Hagele found herself waiting in a line of 40 people outside a local Albertsons, after the state announced Wednesday the Herrera Drive Walmart would be closed for the next two weeks – one of a dozen grocery stores in New Mexico closed in recent weeks due to multiple cases of COVID-19 among workers.

The Herrera Drive Walmart is one of three grocery stores currently closed in Santa Fe under an edict that allows the New Mexico Department of Health to close workplaces down for two weeks if they have four or more COVID-19 rapid responses in a 14-day period.

Each of the three groceries closed in Santa Fe serves residents on the city’s Southside, leaving fewer choices for food in an area already starving for options.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has labeled large swaths of the Southside as a food desert, meaning area residents lack healthy food options. That designation is due to the high number of low-income people in the area combined with the lack of accessible food sources, according to the USDA.

Hagele said the limited options for groceries has concerned many of her neighbors and is part of the reason lines for food were so long.

“I think everybody’s a little like, ‘Oh no, we got to go get our groceries. Everything’s going to close down,'” she said.

State-mandated closures at grocery stores come as coronavirus cases rocket out of control across New Mexico. But community leaders and elected officials from across the state have voiced concerns that closing large grocery stores turns up the pressure on residents and still-open businesses – particularly in rural and low-income areas.

Industry representatives and several state lawmakers have raised questions about the consequences of the policy on social media as well.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during a news conference Thursday maintained the closures are necessary to prevent the spread of coronavirus at essential businesses.

“You can’t have a grocery store or another big box store that sells groceries if all of the employees or the vast majority of them have COVID. You can’t open up,” she said. “And that’s the issue. … There’s so much of this infection that it’s inside the very places people need to access.”

New Mexico Department of Health spokeswoman Marisa Maez said Thursday the state has discretion when considering the closure of a business, including when the business provides essential goods and services in a community “in light of geographic considerations.” She said the current closures are not considered critical since they’re in communities with “considerable alternatives.”

“We certainly understand these closures may cause temporary inconveniences for shoppers,” she said. “However, the Department of Health is confident that these closures will not impose undue hardship on New Mexicans.”

But Santa Fe City Councilor Roman Abeyta, who represents the Southside, said Friday it’s not that simple.

Many residents don’t have a reliable form of transportation – when their local store closes, they don’t have the means to access another, he said.

“When you don’t live on the Southside the way we do and you haven’t experienced the lack of choices, I think that’s a pretty easy statement to make,” Abeyta said, adding that health officials should take that into consideration before closing stores.

Mounting pressure

Leaders of smaller communities across the state also have raised worries about store closures.

The day after two of Roswell’s seven grocery stores were required to close, Mayor Dennis Kintigh noticed a line of about 150 people stretched around the Walmart on the north side of town by 9:30 a.m.

A Sam’s Club and an Albertsons Market in Roswell were each required by the state to cease operations Wednesday after having four or more rapid responses in a 14-day period. Both stores will remain closed until Dec. 2, according to state records.

Signs at the entrance of the closed Walmart at 2266 Wyoming NE. (Anthony Jackson/Albuquerque Journal)

Kintigh said the closures have already started to place more pressure on the city’s remaining grocery stores. With essential businesses required to operate at no more than 25% of capacity or 75 customers, whichever is less, under the state’s most recent health order and Thanksgiving right around the corner, Kintigh said he expects long lines at grocery stores to persist until the two closed stores are allowed to reopen.

“It’s a pain, to put it mildly,” Kintigh told the Journal Thursday.

While the remaining grocery stores are able to serve customers via pickup and delivery, Kintigh said some customers don’t feel comfortable with that approach. He said he’s worried about a situation where Roswell residents feel like they need to cross state lines and drive to Lubbock, Texas – about 170 miles east – just to get groceries.

“We’re trying to do everything we can identify to keep the food chain going,” Kintigh said. “We need to be able to make sure people can get groceries here.”

South of Roswell, Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway penned a letter published by the Carlsbad Current-Argus noting that the closure of the city’s Albertsons has placed “a nearly impossible burden on our other two grocery stores, which were already close to being overwhelmed and had lengthy lines outside.”

Janway, who praised the store manager’s performance during the pandemic, wrote that local officials and the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce are appealing to the state to allow the store to reopen. He added that he’s concerned about the “psychological impact” of the store’s closure.

“The ‘panic buying’ that defined the spring was only reduced after we were able to reassure our residents that their access to necessities would not be interrupted,” he wrote.

Up in the northwest corner of the state, Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett expressed similar concerns after the closure of its West Main Street Walmart, according to The Daily Times. Duckett told The Daily Times he worried lengthy lines outside the city’s other Walmart could themselves become a risk.

The Farmington Walmart was set to reopen Saturday, Nov. 21, state records said.

Some industry representatives have waded into the conversation as well. The Consumer Brands Association – which represents companies including General Mills, Pepsi and others – criticized closures of grocers and other essential businesses in a Nov. 16 letter addressed to Lujan Grisham and sent to the Journal.

“This strict policy threatens the availability of essential goods such as food, disinfectants, cleansers, hand sanitizer, personal hygiene items, sanitary paper products and beverages,” the letter said. “… Among our concerns is that lengthy closures of grocery stores and (consumer packaged goods) manufacturers and distributors will be detrimental to disadvantaged populations that cannot afford to stockpile food and personal hygiene products for their families.”

Options limited

Santa Fe’s Southside had long been notorious for lacking the resources found across the rest of the city, including parks and recreation centers. The area is home to much of the city’s low-income, Spanish-speaking and immigrant communities, as well as the largest concentration of children in Santa Fe.

Its status as a food desert is nothing new, but the closures have exacerbated a pressing need for more food options in the area, according Sherry Hooper, executive director of The Food Depot, a Santa Fe food pantry.

“We are concerned that, with those grocery stores closing, it will take away an opportunity for (residents) to access the food they need,” Hooper said.

Along with the Walmart Supercenter, the state has closed a Target and Smith’s location, and has placed the city’s second Walmart on the rapid response watch list. All four stores serve Southside residents.

The area is also enduring a significant outbreak of COVID-19 and has seen its number of cases increase by around 40% in one week, according to the Department of Health, far exceeding other parts of the city.

Abeyta said that’s because many residents are essential workers and are therefore more vulnerable to the coronavirus.

And with options for groceries becoming more limited, Abeyta said those with transportation will have to go stores in other parts of the city, which are also seeing long lines.

Lujan Grisham on Thursday said the state is working on ways to mitigate the longer lines, whether it be helping grocers add special hours or entrances for vulnerable populations or for single parent households.

“We don’t want people waiting in line, even if you’re six feet away – and not everyone is,” she said. “And even if you have your mask on … it’s cold.”

The demand for packaged food among New Mexicans shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. Hooper said The Food Depot is prepared to cover the 30% increase in demand for the next 18 months, with economists forecasting a slow recovery for low-income families.

“We have people that ride their bikes up to our distribution,” she said. “Any way they can access that emergency food supply, they will do that.”

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