Challenges remained for business owners in Carlsbad as the city recovered from COVID-19, even as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifted all restrictions that were intended to limit the spread of the virus.
In lifting the restrictions, which limited capacity at local businesses and public gatherings and made required use of face masks and social distancing, Lujan Grisham cited the statewide vaccination rate at 62 percent as of Thursday – above the 60 percent goal set by state health officials.
This meant the end of the state’s county-by-county tiered, red-to-turquoise system used throughout 2021 to assess the risk in each of New Mexico’s 33 counties.
It also meant capacity limits on public establishments like restaurants and movie theaters were dissolved, leaving any health-related decisions and mitigation efforts up to the consumers alone.
At Carlsbad restaurant Yellow Brix, owner Barbara Rempel said that while her dining room was no longer limited to 75 percent capacity, the restaurant continued to be challenged by staffing as the federal government continued to provide enhanced unemployment benefits to the non-working in an effort to address the economic hardship brought on by the health crisis.
“I do think that a lot of people are still on unemployment,” she said. “That does cause some issues not just for us, but I would think for other businesses. Unemployment has played a role in the shortage of labor.”
She said she was optimistic that diners would return to the restaurant and begin to frequent public spaces around Carlsbad in the weeks after the restrictions were lifted.
“It’s really nice to be able to open 100 percent again,” Rempel said. “It’s great the people are feeling confided going out. It’s a wonderful thing. We always need great servers.”
Will customers return after fallout of COVID-19?
The question of consumer confidence in returning to public spaces was the biggest obstacle facing Carlsbad’s lone movie theater La Cueva 6, said President of parent company Allen Theaters Russel Allen.
While bringing back staff was one roadblock – he said the Carlsbad theater still needs three to four workers to be fully staffed – Allen was more concerned with convincing moviegoers to feel safe.
“This kind of shifts responsibility of concern for someone’s health from us to the customer,” Allen said. “They’re now going to have to decide their comfort level. They’re going to have to decide if they want to participate in someone’s business.”
He said movie theaters could face a particular challenge, as customers can’t stop each other from sitting nearby – without buying up all the surrounding seats.
“In my world it’s very specific, because they have to pick their seat. That’s probably one of the challenges that we’re still going to face,” Allen said. “People, rightly so, are still going to have concerns. Our blocking seats is gone. Every seat is available to sell. If you don’t buy the seats by you, someone else will.”
The movie theater industry’s recovery could take longer than others, he said, as during the pandemic film companies began streaming movies online for home viewing.
“Our real challenge is the perceptions, the fear and if they want to come or not,” Allen said. “Our recovery is going to take a little bit longer, because people don’t have to go to the movies but they have to eat.”
Getting people back in the habit of attending the cinema, and awaiting major films to be released, could define the industry’s recovery in the coming months, Allen said.
He pointed to the release of F9, the latest in the Fast and Furious franchise, as the first major movie release since COVID-19 restrictions were lifted and looked forward to the release of Black Widow on July 9 as titles that could jump-start the theater business out of the woes of the pandemic.
“Our biggest concern is how the world goes forward with movies and streaming,” Allen said. “It’s a new world and we’ll see how the film companies move forward.
“We’re just happy to open again. It’s been a long 15 months.”
Carlsbad Mayor Dale Janway, in the wake of the announcement, said it was “long overdue” and that many local restaurants and other establishments were forced to close and are unable to enjoy the reopening.
He said staffing is still a major issue the city is hoping to address.
“We absolutely feel that moving past the COVID-19 capacity restrictions is long overdue. At this point, the biggest obstacle for local businesses is almost certainly staffing. We talk to businesses every single day who are having trouble filling all of their positions,” Janway said.
“Family owned restaurants and small businesses are always tough to run, and the COVID-19 shutdowns put some of these businesses over the edge to where they weren’t able to recover. It was a very sad situation.”
Lujan Grisham in her announcement said businesses could still follow some safety protocols like mask wearing and social distancing at their discretion, and that healthcare facilities were likely to continue requiring masks and COVID-19 testing.
She also urged New Mexicans to get vaccinated for the virus and beware of potential variants of coronavirus as they are discovered.
“We stepped up. We looked out for one another. We sacrificed, and we saved lives. And now we’re all ready for a safe and fun summer,” Lujan Grisham said.
“Please, get your shot if you haven’t already – don’t risk these dangerous new variants that present incredible risk to unvaccinated and even young people.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.