Turtle Mountain Brewing Co. owner Nico Ortiz, center, in the blue mask, stands at the corner of his restaurant with his employees, showing signs saying “#LetUsServe.” Amy Byres photo.

After the governor prohibited dine-in service, the New Mexico Restaurant Association filed a lawsuit and organized a virtual protest called #LetUsServe.

New Mexico has over 16,000 verified cases of COVID-19, with more than 6,500 recoveries and over 560 deaths, according to the state Department of Health. With cases rising, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham reinstated a ban on indoor dining at restaurants and indoor seating at breweries Monday.

“I know this news is a tough pill to swallow for many New Mexicans,” said Lujan Grisham in a press release. “This public-health crisis has been an overwhelming challenge for all of us — not least business owners and workers whose lives and livelihoods have been upended as this virus spreads.”

She said closing areas with prolonged exposure without face-coverings would help reduce risk.

Monday, the NMRA asked restaurant owners to post a picture of their employees and customers outside of their restaurant with the number of workers they have.

NMRA CEO Carol Wight said the purpose of #LetUsServe was to show the governor how many lives she is affecting with this decision.

“We wanted to give restaurateurs a voice so they could hope the governor could hear them,” she said.

Over 200 restaurants have gone out of business due to shutdowns, and more will continue to close, Wight said.

The NMRA has reached out to the governor’s office in efforts to work something out, but Wight had not heard anything back as of press time, she said.

One solution Wight suggested was for restaurants to become certified in COVID-safe practices.

“We can’t control the public, and obviously she doesn’t have any control either,” Wight said.

Turtle Mountain Brewing Company owner Nico Ortiz posted a video and picture of himself and his employees outside with signs saying #LetUsServe.

He said he is following COVID-safe practices (CSP) and is enforcing a mask requirement.

“The governor has dug in her heels, and there is really nothing any of us restaurants can do besides doing our best to enforce the mask-wearing and continue utilizing all of the CSPs handed down to us by the department of health,” Ortiz said.

He said he may have to furlough 10-15 of his 55 employees with decreasing revenues.

“The virus has to run its course, and we have to get the numbers down. At the end of the day, that’s what needs to happen in order for us to get back to operating at 100 percent,” he said.

Last week, his revenues have been down a little over 20 percent, but Ortiz predicts a further loss in revenues in the coming weeks.

According to Turtle Mountain’s post on Facebook for #LetUsServe, “The governor is trying to lay the blame for the increase in positive COVID cases on the restaurant and brewery industry without providing a shred of evidence to support that position.”

This was a part of NMRA’s reasoning when filing its lawsuit to overturn the governor’s orders.

“It’s our position that the governor’s public-health order is arbitrary and capricious. And what that basically means, in plain English, is that she is making decisions without fact and has a result of that those decisions are void,” said NMRA’s attorney, Antonia Roybal-Mack.

The 77-page document filed in the Fifth Judicial District Court in Chaves County outlines the NMRA’s reasoning to request restaurants and breweries to have indoor seating reopened.

Exhibit 12 is evidence being used to support the NMRA’s position.

It is a flyer published by the New Mexico health department ranking COVID-19 risk levels by activity. It has a scale of one to nine, with nine being the highest risk.

Level six includes:

• Schools,

• Restaurant indoor seating,

• Salons,

• Barber shops,

• Buses and

• Public transit.

Level seven includes:

• Playing basketball,

• Public pools,

• Splash pads and

• Churches

Level eight includes:

• Gyms,

• Amusement parks,

• Sports stadiums and

• Family reunions.

“The difficulty is that she didn’t close the other level sixes and she did not close all the level sevens or level eights,” Roybal-Mack said.

According to a New Mexico Environment Department pie chart of rapid response cases of COVID-19 positive employees, the food industries are responsible for 19 percent of employee positive cases.

The environment department includes grocery stores as a food industry. The NMED provides an Excel spreadsheet with the total number of COVID-19 positive employees.

Roybal-Mack used this spreadsheet to pick out only restaurants and calculate their positive COVID tests. Her calculations indicate the restaurant industry is responsible for 13 percent of COVID-19 cases among employees.

Of the restaurants included in the spreadsheet, only one had more than one employee test positive, Roybal-Mack said.

Employees could have gotten COVID-19 from anywhere; there is no evidence showing they caught COVID-19 at work, she said.

In addition, she said if only one employee out of 160 — in El Pinto’s case — caught COVID-19, that shows social distancing and the measures restaurants are taking are working.

Staff writer at Rio Rancho Observer