Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico will shed its pandemic-related business capacity limits today (July 1), inching back toward normalcy after more than 15 months of state-imposed restrictions.
The long-awaited statewide reopening will affect movie theaters, restaurants, concert venues, churches and professional sports teams that have been required to limit capacity – and, in some cases, overhaul their business models – for much of the past year.
At the historic Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, New Mexico, owner Ernie Sichler said workers were bringing more tables inside the restaurant from an outside patio and preparing to relaunch counter service as state restrictions will no longer require tables to be spaced at least 6 feet apart.
“I don’t think we were hit as hard as some other places,” Sichler said Wednesday, describing the iconic eatery as a destination for food connoisseurs who traveled the country on road trips over the past year.
“But we definitely felt the pandemic,” added his wife, Stephanie Sichler, who said customers still have different comfort levels when it comes to indoor dining.
The reopening comes as New Mexico’s infection rate from COVID-19 is at its lowest level since April 2020 and the percentage of eligible state residents with at least one dose of a vaccine against the virus has eclipsed 70% – with more than 62% of them having completed their vaccine shots.
However, vaccination rates in several southeast New Mexico counties – including Eddy, Lea and Chaves – remain at less than 40% of eligible residents fully vaccinated.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that the pandemic is far from over, citing elevated risk levels for COVID-19 variants in some of those counties.
One contagious variant, the Delta variant that originated in India, has been confirmed only in low levels in New Mexico, though the number of COVID-19 cases matched to the variant has increased from 17 to 30 over the past week, according to state Department of Health data.
But the Democratic governor said today’s lifting of business restrictions, which was announced two weeks ago as the state neared a goal she set of 60% of fully vaccinated residents, was justified and hard-earned.
“It is making people feel like this terrible pandemic burden is lifted,” Lujan Grisham said in an interview. “I feel very good about where we are.”
While neighboring states, such as Arizona, Texas and Colorado, have already rolled back their pandemic-related business restrictions and most – if not all – of their mask-wearing requirements, the governor said New Mexico has been “more open” than many other states, though she did not cite examples.
At Stone Age Climbing Gym, the lifting of capacity restrictions from 75% to full capacity is unlikely to make a difference in operations, but owner Bryan Pletta said the change will allow the gym to resume such events as climbing competitions.
“Whether or not it actually makes any effective difference in our numbers, it feels really good to have those capacity restrictions lifted and I think that it’s going to make the community feel more comfortable coming in,” Pletta said.
No information on masks at schools
The changes to the state’s pandemic-related restrictions were made official in a revised public health order issued Wednesday by Health Secretary Tracie Collins.
Under the new order, which runs through July 30, a color-coded system used by state health officials since December to set business restrictions on a county-by-county level is scrapped.
However, the revised public health order leaves in place a face mask mandate for unvaccinated New Mexicans in public settings, with exceptions for eating, drinking and exercising.
Fully vaccinated residents are not required to wear face coverings in accordance with guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, though businesses, churches and other groups can voluntarily impose and enforce mask-wearing mandates.
In addition, the revised health order also leaves intact a rapid response requirement that businesses, nonprofits and other establishments with frequent face-to-face interactions must report outbreaks of COVID-19 cases involving staff and customers to a state agency.
The face mask mandate in particular has proven to be a political lightning rod, with some law enforcement officials refusing to enforce it during the pandemic and some political candidates refusing to comply with it.
State officials have not yet said whether face masks will still be required for children attending New Mexico public schools once a new academic year gets underway in August, though unvaccinated children – the vaccine is currently available to those age 12 and older – are still required to wear face coverings while playing youth sports.
Some adjustments will be required
The pandemic has hit many New Mexico businesses and workers hard, despite state and federal relief packages aimed at aiding low-income families and the general economy.
While New Mexico’s economic outlook has improved in recent months, the state’s unemployment rate was the nation’s second highest, at 8%, as of May – only Hawaii had a higher jobless rate.
Some restaurant owners have complained about difficulty hiring more staff, despite high unemployment levels, while worker advocates have said would-be employees are wary or unable to go back to work due to child care issues, health concerns and pay rate factors.
While the statewide reopening might not fully solve the state’s labor issues, the revised public health order will mark a return to normalcy at Sidewinders Bar and Grill.
For the past year, the Albuquerque nightclub has operated as a restaurant, meaning guests must order food with all drinks, remain at their tables and performers had to stay on stage.
Restaurants and bars also faced requirements to close nightly at 9 or 10 p.m. as part of the more restrictive “red” and “yellow” levels under the state’s previous public health order.
But that all changes.
“The biggest changes will be bar service,” owner Michael Burdick said. “The fact that you can actually mingle with people, so you see some friends of yours, you can actually go over to their table and talk to them which, right now, we don’t allow.”
He also said the reopening will require adjustments, since the bar currently doesn’t have enough staff to extend hours to 2 a.m., but said change is welcome after the last year.
“I’m very excited about it,” Burick said.