It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and July 1 marks the first day business operations, gatherings and other activities haven’t been limited by the state’s “Red to Green” framework, introduced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in response to the pandemic in early December 2020.

On June 18, Lujan Grisham announced the retirement of the color-coded system, allowing businesses of all types to operate at 100 percent capacity.

Businesses can still take COVID-19 precautions, such as social distancing and requiring customers and staff to wear masks. The state dropped the across-the-board requirement for face coverings in mid May, when the CDC changed its guidance, recommending only unvaccinated people needed to wear them.

Belen salon owner Ronnie Torres said due to the size of the building Hair Innovations occupies, all of his employees plus its customers will now be able to occupy the space at the same time.

“Now we won’t have to have customers wait outside,” Torres said.

Stylists and other employees will continue to wear masks at work, he said, but customers will be on the “honor system.”

Hair Innovations, like other businesses defined as “nonessential” under the governor’s executive health order, was completely closed for three-and-a-half months.

“We didn’t have to close for an outbreak; we were extremely careful with everything we did,” he said.

The precautions were appreciated by customers, Torres said, especially older clients who are more susceptible to the virus.

Hair Innovations, Belen

Hair Innovations, Belen

“They were comfortable coming into a business taking precautions,” he said. “I know for myself, if I went into a business and they weren’t following the rules, I didn’t go back. If they’re not following the basic CDC rules, what else are they not doing?”

Despite the past year-plus, Torres said business has been great at the salon and they could even use another hairdresser. He said prices have gone up, significantly in some cases, for pretty much everything.

“… pretty much everything has increased 50, 75, in some cases 100, percent. We’ve had to increase our prices some,” he said. “There are also some products we still can’t get and the warehouses don’t even have yet.”

As things move back to normal, people keeping a “good attitude” just like they did during the pandemic, will make things easier, he said.

“Everybody’s glad to see things getting back to normal,” Torres said. “Although it’s kind of weird to go back to normal. Do we know how?”

Chris Saiz, owner of Main Street Muscle in Los Lunas, said staying afloat the past 15 months meant making changes to the business to make sure costs didn’t overrun revenues.

“That meant less staffing and more ownership working the gym. That was a downside for employees,” Saiz said. “A lot of things turned into in-house priorities, where we might have hired contractors before.

“It was kind of a blessing in disguise to have group exercises restricted. That dropped some costs. Once demand increases, we don’t have a problem paying for those costs again.”

Main Street Muscle owner Chris Saiz, Los Lunas

Main Street Muscle owner Chris Saiz, Los Lunas

Saiz said Main Street, which just celebrated 25 years in business, is looking forward to bringing back its group exercise classes.

Calling his instructors the “lifeblood” of the business and once the demand for classes comes back, he’ll be more than happy to bring them back.

The warm months are slow times for gyms as a whole, he said, so the hope is they will have a busy season as things cool later in the year.

“We are really being positive about moving forward. Looking to the fall, we hope the powers-that-be have learned something and we don’t see shutdowns,” he said. “We thrive in the winter time.”

Cleaning supplies the business typically buys are harder to find and prices have increased by 200 percent in come cases, Saiz said.

“Prices have increased due to demand. That’s the beauty of the capitalist system — supply and demand is a reality. You see some industries do what they have to do to keep product rolling and trying to keep people working,” he said. “The only way to keep people who want to work working is to pay them more. That goes into your costs. I think our economy, society, unfortunately our state, are going to see the results of that.”

Adapting to constant change is how the owners and employees at Sopa’s Restaurant in Bosque Farms spent their pandemic. Maya Sanchez, one of the owners, said the business was also very fortunate to get a contract with the Facebook Data Center in Los Lunas.

“When everyone was pretty much closing, we were able to stay open and keep all our employees. We were one of three or four local restaurants that got a Facebook contract,” Sanchez said.

When she heard the kitchen at the construction site was shutting down due to COVID restrictions, Sanchez called to see if Sopa’s could fill the gap. The woman she talked to said they had just received all the signed contracts, but she’d let Sanchez know if anything came up.

Sopa's Restaurant, Bosque Farms

Sopa’s Restaurant, Bosque Farms

The next day, a vendor canceled, opening the door for the restaurant to provide lunch for 85 to 100 people every day for several months. When the Facebook kitchen reopened, Sopa’s was in to-go mode and the community turned out, she said.

“The community was so supportive of local restaurants. I think they even ate here when they weren’t hungry,” Sanchez said with a laugh. “They were very generous with tips. People would have an $8 order and tip $20. There was just an outpouring of support.”

Under the turquoise level restrictions, restaurants that were New Mexico Safe Certified in COVID-19 practices could operate at 75 percent capacity for indoor and outdoor dining. With the state moving to 100 percent open, Sanchez said all COVID requirements have been lifted.

“We’ve already made changes and adapted,” she said. “Going forward, one of the bigger things is, even though we kept all our employees, with the amount of business we have now, it’s hard to keep up.”

People are going out so they are seeing more customers, and even with the same number of employees sometimes service runs slow.

“With the increased business, I think across the board at any restaurant there’s a wait time. It’s hard to tell every customer we’re doing our best given the amount of people we’re serving,” Sanchez said.

The restaurant has made some new hires, some of who have no experience in the industry.

“We have a lot of young people coming into the workforce and it’s a new workforce we need to train,” she said. “If we don’t give them a chance, what are we going to do? It’s a different situation. We really need people back in the workforce.”

Sopa’s is experiencing the same challenges as most restaurants across the country — some items are hard to find and prices have increased.

“I think it’s a lot to do with trading and tariffs, and keeping things in the U.S., which is great, but on the flip side, prices have risen, demand is high and stock is low,” Sanchez said. “Costs have increased tremendously — there’s trucking, gas, a lot of different factors.”

Sanchez said grants and tax breaks from the state and federal government, such as the federal employee retention tax credit and the state’s waiver of gross receipts taxes for restaurants, also made a big difference in the business’s bottom line.

As of Tuesday, June 29, 6,919 cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Valencia County since March 2020, and 119 deaths. Of those who tested positive, 6,695 have recovered.

According to the COVID case outlook for June 1-14, the county has a positivity rate of 2.15 percent and 5.1 positive cases per 100,000 people. Those numbers were updated on Wednesday, June 30, after News-Bulletin deadline.

The NMDOH is reporting 61.8 percent of Valencia County residents have received one shot, as of Tuesday, June 29, and 54.2 percent have received both doses of either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.