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A city divided: two sets of rules for dining in Española

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

ESPAÑOLA — It’s one city with two sets of rules.

In some parts of Española, restaurants are welcoming back customers dining inside for the first time in months, while others continue to rely on any takeout orders they can muster.

In Española, the east side of Riverside Drive is in Santa Fe County, while the west side – which includes the Stop & Eat on the right – is in Rio Arriba County. Currently, which county a restaurant is in determines whether it can offer indoor dining under current COVID-19 restrictions. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

That’s because Española has its territory split between two counties, Rio Arriba and Santa Fe. Typically, that border has little significance in the lives of local residents, with this week being a notable exception.

State officials announced Wednesday that 19 New Mexico counties had advanced to the state’s yellow and green levels, prompting an easing of COVID-19 restrictions implemented under the red designation in those areas.

Yellow counties, which have a positivity rate under 5%, can offer indoor dining up to 25% capacity, with larger capacities for houses of worship and retail stores. And while Santa Fe County entered the yellow designation for the first time, Rio Arriba barely missed the cutoff, with a positivity rate of 5.15%.

The county line zig-zags across Riverside Drive, the city’s primary economic strip. That means one restaurant could offer indoor dining, while another literally across the street remains under the tighter restrictions.

For Eder Amado, owner of the restaurant Italian Infusion, that means he could have customers in his restaurant for the first time in months. Italian Infusion sits just inside the Santa Fe County line.

Just two families sat inside the restaurant Friday, but it was clear Amado was excited at what it could mean for his struggling business.

“We have a lot of people calling and asking if we’re gonna be open for Valentine’s weekend and we tell them we are,” he said.

He said he lost about 90% of his business when indoor dining was banned, and takeout orders did little to help. His landlord gave him a discount on his rent, something he said was necessary to stay afloat.

“And I pay Santa Fe County taxes and hourly wage, so it’s a lot different than being in Rio Arriba County,” Amado said.

He said many residents don’t know exactly where the county line is and some have come into his restaurant demanding he stop serving people indoors because they think it’s in Rio Arriba.

Just across the street stands El Rodeo, a small Mexican restaurant that is not allowed to have indoor dining since it’s in Rio Arriba County. Chairs remain stacked in the corner and no customers stood in line Friday for takeout orders.

Roman Salgado, the cook at El Rodeo, said it felt strange that some restaurants can have indoor dining and others cannot.

“Of course we feel weird,” Salgado said in Spanish, with his granddaughter Daniela translating. “How come, in Santa Fe, they can be more packed, but (in Rio Arriba), there’s hardly any people that really come?”

He said they’ve had to dig into their savings to keep the restaurant afloat. Daniela said they received five calls from people asking if they could eat inside. When she told them no, all of them decided to look elsewhere for a place to dine inside.

Española Mayor Javier Sánchez, whose popular La Cocina restaurant is a quarter mile inside the Rio Arriba side of the county line, is in a similar position. Months ago, he was able to fill his large outdoor patio with the maximum number of customers allowed, but colder temperatures have changed that entirely.

“There are no patio heaters available,” Sánchez said. “It hasn’t been an easy winter to overcome.”

He said distribution of vaccines in Rio Arriba has been much slower – the county had 6% of residents partially vaccinated on Jan. 29, while Santa Fe County had 21%. The Republican mayor said he believes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham should allow Rio Arriba businesses to operate with fewer restrictions.

“Are we ever going to get below 5%?” Sánchez asked, noting numbers are dropping while nearby casinos operate near capacity. “I would love to see a change in some of those guidelines.”

Lujan Grisham press secretary Nora Meyers Sackett wrote Friday that positivity rates are an effective way to curb the spread of the virus as the state implements county-by-county restrictions.

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