FARMINGTON – As the state of New Mexico rapidly approaches a dubious milestone this week of more than 100,000 positive cases of COVID-19, the latest public health order from the governor’s office is allowing businesses once again to reopen with restrictions.
The order, announced Friday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham as well as state health officials, is an effort designed to provide local communities the flexibility to operate more day-to-day activities. The state of New Mexico will transition to a tiered county-by-county COVID-19 risk system, enabling communities to shed burdensome restrictions as soon as public health data show the virus is retreating within their borders.
The shift in the state’s “reopening” framework went into effect after a two-week “reset” period last month, in which state officials enacted the most heightened level of statewide public health restrictions on businesses and day-to-day activities in an effort to blunt the spread of COVID-19 across New Mexico.
Counties are tiered in three designations, with red counties considered to be at very high risk, yellow counties at high risk and green counties at medium risk. According to the amended public health order, the county-by-county framework will permit counties – and the businesses and nonprofit entities within their borders – to operate under less restrictive public health measures when health metrics demonstrating the extent of the virus’ spread and test positivity within those counties are met.
All but one of New Mexico’s 33 counties have been placed at level “red,” with only Los Alamos County under the designation “yellow.”
The latest round of restrictions, including the most recent near-total shutdown which concluded Tuesday, has taken its toll on local government officials as well as business owners and managers.
Cautiously optimisticFarmington City Manager Rob Mayes understands the detrimental effect the latest closures and restrictions have had on many.
“Restrictions on essential businesses and services create hardships for those traveling here for necessities,” Mayes said this week. “In spite of this, I am optimistic our community will come together to improve our numbers, relieve our health care personnel and resources, and get our schools, businesses and churches fully open.”
Mayes was reluctant to say whether he thinks the new tiered system is the best step going forward.
“We hope this is a step in the right direction, yet I have reservations, as our county is so vast and varied,” he said. “San Juan County is larger than the state of Connecticut, so still a very large area to throw all into one pot. And we serve as a vital retail and necessities hub for over 300,000 citizens of the Four Corners.”
One such business model that had to justify its importance and differentiate itself from others was gyms or personal fitness facilities.
Defined Fitness, which operates eight facilities across the state, as well as other gyms, sought relief from the governor’s orders originally classifying fitness centers as retail operations, which would have allowed them only 25% capacity, or 10 people inside the facility at any time, whichever of the two is smaller. After much discussion, the state allowed fitness centers to be placed in the category of “all other businesses,” which lessen the burden on personal fitness facilities and ease the restrictions to allow 25% of maximum capacity or up to 75 customers at one time, whichever is smaller.
“That will make a big difference for us, especially,” said Steve Lein, operations manager of Defined Fitness’ club location in Farmington. “Gyms are more a part of the solution as opposed to the problem. The idea of keeping one’s physical and mental well-being important is going to go a long way in helping people stay healthy.”
Before the first shutdown last spring, the gym offered about 75 classes per week. It now offers about 30. Likewise, the gym’s personal trainers used to have up to 80 clients but now have about 20, he said.
Those dramatic shifts in numbers have caused personal and economic hardships on staff and members.
“We learned a lot about furloughs and layoffs (during the first lockdown) and the effect it was having on everyone,” Lein said. “The biggest negative was the idea that gyms weren’t safe. People didn’t want to come back when we reopened after the first lockdown.”
Among the differences between the current partial reopening and the ones personal fitness centers experienced last spring was the change in the weather.
“When we shut down the first time, the weather was warmer so people found alternative ways to stay healthy,” Lein said. “Now, it’s much colder and some people may be more reluctant to take care of their health and wellness. That’s where we need to do a good job in ensuring people that our facilities are up to the task.”
What are the long-lasting ramifications?Gyms and personal fitness facilities weren’t the only businesses massively impacted by near-total lockdowns.
Bars, breweries and restaurants are also dealing with the long-lasting ramifications.
“We started with 80 employees before the first lockdown,” said John Silva, owner of downtown Farmington’s Three Rivers Restaurant, as well as its accompanying tap and game room, pizzeria and brewstillery. “Now, we’re down to five.”
Despite the dramatic change in numbers, Silva remained optimistic that people’s behaviors can and will change for the better.
“One thing I keep hoping for is that we’ll all learn to be a little kinder to each other,” Silva said. “There isn’t one business that I know of in this area that hasn’t been crushed by this.”
As an established local business serving the community for more than 20 years, Three Rivers relied on a loyal customer base to keep operations moving during the first shutdown, as well as during the most recent curbing of hours and limits on capacity. Newer businesses, Silva said, weren’t as lucky.
“If you decided to venture into a new business in 2020 before all this came along, how much longer can you possibly survive? How much more stress can a business take before it becomes too much?”
Eva Armenta, owner of Fat Boys Deli in Farmington, said not even high school students have been spared from the financial impacts of widespread shutdowns.
“We’re contracted through the city to be available at ballparks and recreation centers over the spring and summer,” Armenta said. “When the first lockdown occurred, all those kids who were counting on us for seasonal jobs were suddenly out of work through no fault of their own.”
Armenta hopes in the future there will be better lines of communication from state, county and local officials as it relates to changes or updates to health orders.
“We relied so much on social media to get any sort of information at all during these last few months,” Armenta said. “We never received communication from state officials at all.”
Armenta wants to be optimistic about the future, but also understands people’s frustrations – whether it be from business people or just local residents – have been mounting.
“You do everything you can to follow orders,” Armenta said. “We spent money on outdoor seating, we changed our hours. We were so encouraged by the support we got from the community the first time around.
“There’s a lot of reasons why this recent lockdown was worse, but it just seemed that optimism was disappearing,” Armenta said.
It will be difficult to gauge the long-term ramifications of the on-again, off-again nature of shutdowns, partial re-openings and the financial burdens of businesses and families going forward. The economic hardships for many – especially in San Juan County – could go on for years, Silva said.
“There’s a cost to all of this, and it’s not just financial,” Silva said. “There’s an element of mistrust out there. All these cities rely on each other, and all it takes is one little hiccup before it comes back again.”