'Maybe the tide has turned' - Albuquerque Journal

‘Maybe the tide has turned’

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Kayla Stokes says it’s busier now than it was before the pandemic.

At least that’s the case for Santa Fe Brewery Brakeroom, where tables both inside and out were packed with patrons Friday night.

Pepe Torres, right, and his friends enjoy a night out at Boxcar in Santa Fe on Friday. Santa Fe County recently transitioned to green in the state’s four-tiered system, allowing for more indoor seating. (Nadav Soroker/For The Journal)

People laughed and shared stories around crowded tables, while workers hurried to fill new orders. With few exceptions, it almost resembled a typical Friday night at the Brakeroom, before the COVID-19 pandemic upended any sense of normalcy.

Stokes said the place has been packed every day for the past month, as temperatures rise and cases of COVID-19 decline.

“The second the weather rose above 30 degrees, we’ve been at capacity,” she said. “We have people waiting in line out the door.”

Early Jackson, right, chats with bartender Amber Barnes from a table near the bar at Boxcar on Friday. Jackson, a regular patron, said it was busier than usual at the restaurant. (Nadav Soroker for the Albuquerque Journal)

While that capacity remains a fraction of what it was pre-pandemic, restaurants and other fixtures of Santa Fe nightlife have recently been seeing more people in the downtown area. That number is expected to increase with pandemic-related restrictions becoming even looser.

Santa Fe County recently moved into the “green” level, according to the state’s county-by-county reopening plan, affording businesses and restaurants some of the loosest restrictions they’ve seen in months. That includes 50% indoor capacity and 75% outdoors, with bars and clubs allowed to open 25% outdoors only.

Currently, Santa Fe is New Mexico’s largest city in the green, with Albuquerque and Las Cruces still in the tighter “yellow” category.

Boxcar host Chris Polhamus, center, listens to a crowd of customers waiting for a seat. Wait times at the busy restaurant averaged 30 to 40 minutes, according to Polhamus, as more people took advantage of a more-open Santa Fe County. (Nadav Soroker/For The Journal)

Many Santa Feans, as well as those visiting the area, have already taken advantage of fewer restrictions.

Cars packed the parking lot for the Boxcar Sports Bar, a popular weekend spot, with nearly every seat filled inside and on the restaurant’s three patios. Eager customers lined up outside, with some waiting close to an hour before a table became available.

“Everybody’s so tired of being pent up at home that we’re just being bombarded,” Boxcar Manager Peter Samaniego told the Journal.

Many noted that – with so many people talking, drinking and laughing – it almost felt like a return to normalcy. Tamara Rigaud of Nambé said she was kind of surprised to see the Boxcar with so many people.

“I have never seen this place as full within the last year,” Rigaud said. “I was thinking to myself, ‘This is almost like Texas, but the servers are wearing masks.’ ”

Others are still wary of large crowds, even with cases declining.

Santa Fe resident Ibis Saenz had planned on eating at the Boxcar, but said he was deterred by the large amount of people there.

“I kind of wasn’t expecting that,” Saenz said. “That’s crazy.”

And then there are some businesses that are simply waiting for their chance to reopen.

While bars and clubs are allowed to open at 25% for outdoors, many bars in Santa Fe simply have no outdoor seating and don’t serve food, which would allow them to open partially. Moving into the least restrictive “turquoise” category would allow that.

One of those places is The Matador, a basement bar a block away from the Santa Fe Plaza, which has been closed since March. Jonah Prokopiak has worked as a bartender at the Matador for more than eight years, but has been unemployed for the past year as work has dissipated.

“It’s a bummer, because my friends get to go back to their work to serve food – but I’m still stuck twiddling my thumbs,” Prokopiak said.

Some Santa Fe bars weren’t able to survive. The CrowBar, another popular spot near the Plaza, closed its doors last July after failing to pay rent for more than six months.

But for businesses that are open, the foot traffic is only expected to increase.

Rik Blyth, executive vice president of La Fonda Hotel, said the hotel is expected to reach its 75% capacity limit next weekend after being flooded with new reservations.

And with tourist attractions such as Meow Wolf and movie theaters like Violet Crown scheduled to open next week, those crowds aren’t expected to slow down, unless there’s a spike in coronavirus cases. However, with more people vaccinated and cases dropping, Blyth said more people are feeling optimistic.

“It’s just more of a mental thing that everyone feels that maybe the tide has turned,” he said of the county’s shift to green. “It’s hard not to get your hopes up and you want to go do something.”

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