Taos Suffers Through Ski Season
By Sean Johnson-Latham / NM News Port
Businesses in Taos struggled to remain open as the pandemic throttled tourism in northern New Mexico’s choice ski resort town.
“We’re hurting! We’re really hurting!” Marco Barbitta, the general manager of Stella’s Italian Restaurant, shouted into the phone.
The state’s public health orders allow restaurants to serve indoors if they meet certain requirements, but Barbitta said it has been too hard to meet them and seating outdoors isn’t very practical when nighttime temperatures near freezing.
“It’s too f*****g cold to eat outside!” Barbitta said during the peak of the season.
The state’s public health orders are too broad several Taos business owners said.
All businesses in New Mexico are required to adhere to the state-mandated COVID-Safe practices for all employers and retail establishments, but a color-coded scheme lets the public know that as the virus threat lowers, some restrictions are also loosened or lifted.
That means if a county were in the red, restaurants could not serve indoors but could serve outdoors at 25% of their seating capacity. Restaurants that want to open indoor dining while still in the red tier also have to become New Mexico Safe Certified, maintain contact tracing records for at least three weeks, screen all employees before entering the workplace every day, and screen all customers with a COVID questionnaire provided by the state.
Those extra requirements were too much for many restaurants to take on. Barbitta said for him it was too big of a hassle to go through to serve a limited capacity because the profits would still not be enough to cover their bills.
In the yellow phase, restaurants can serve indoors at 25% capacity and outdoors at 75% capacity, but Taos didn’t move into yellow until February, months into the ski season. In late February it briefly rose into the less restrictive green phase but backslid in March.
The seesaw was painful, but some restaurateurs supported the state’s efforts.
“I greatly respect how she has handled the whole thing,” said Mary Beth, the owner of Dreamcatcher bed-and-breakfast.
Even though Beth said she supports the governor’s efforts to protect public health, she said the restrictions may be too tough.
Beth said that, in terms of her own business, she couldn’t see any reason why Dreamcatcher couldn’t operate open at full capacity without putting anyone at risk.
Dreamcatcher is perfectly set up for social distancing, she said. Each of the seven rooms has its own private entrance from a courtyard.
Beth said she had no problem following the COVID guidelines even though Dreamcatcher’s revenue is down by nearly 48% from last year. She said was very cautious at the start of the pandemic, following all the rules and guidelines to a T.
She said she is still very cautious following all the guidelines, with hopes that Taos businesses will soon be able to operate with a higher capacity.
The state implemented a color-coded tier system in December to determine which counties are ready to reopen.
Since then, the daily number of COVID cases has been trending down and is the lowest it has been since early October.
Health experts say that we may not return to “normal” life until sometime in 2021.
But small businesses cannot wait for too much longer for some assistance.
“We need help now!” Barbitta said. “We can’t keep doing this s**t.”
Sean Johnson-Latham is a reporter for the New Mexico News Port. He can be reached at email@example.com