It’s been five weeks, and Joell Himeur is dying for some of Teofilo’s red chile. And a whole bean burrito, Christmas. And some sopaipillas.

Himuer, daughter of Teofilo’s New Mexican Restaurant owners Hortencia and Pete Torres, like many Valencia County residents began missing the Los Lunas restaurant’s delicacies when it closed last month in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We did to-go those first few days but decided to close simply because there was so much unknown,” Himeur said.

She and her sister, Johanna Torres, were also worried about the health of their parents, who are in a high-risk category due to their age.

Teofilo’s Restauranté in Los Lunas continues to serve customers with take-out orders and 50 percent capacity on their outdoor patio.
News-Bulletin file photo

“We were worried about our health, the employees health,” she said. “We decided as a family to really feel safe, we were just going to close.”

So the waiting began and after listening to the governor’s message last week, the family felt it was time to reopen.

“Last week, she talked about slowly moving in phases back to business. We thought this was a good way to open up slowly; a good time to start phasing ourselves back in,” she said.

The closure has taken a hard, financial toll on the restaurant and its employees, Himeur said, but ultimately they felt it was better to be safe than sorry.

“We want to do business in a way that is safe for our employees and customers. We want to handle things in a way that makes everyone comfortable,” she said. “We are taking things day-by-day but we are really super excited.”

It’s also been exciting to have an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the employees, Himeur said.

“I sent out an email to our employees and everybody was so excited to come back. It warmed my heart to get that reaction,” she said.

Teofilo’s will reopen for to-go orders only, starting Friday, May 1. The restaurant will be open 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and for Mother’s Day, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday, May 10.

The debate of whether to keep non-essential businesses closed and limiting essential ones versus letting all businesses be open, either with or without restrictions, has been hotly debated and in the news across the country these last few weeks.

In a recent unscientific Facebook poll, the News-Bulletin asked Valencia County residents where they stood on the issue.

Of the 970 votes cast, 48 percent supported allowing businesses to open with social distancing requirements, and 52 percent favored continuing the current stay-at-home recommendations.

“(Opening) with social distancing wouldn’t be a problem if people actually listened and followed protocol.” Lila Brock commented on the poll post. “The problem is people don’t listen or care about other people’s health.”

Misty Ford supported reopening small businesses.

“Let people choose if they want to go out,” Ford wrote. “They are doing it anyway and businesses who provide for our families have no income coming in to support them.”

Essential businesses, such as grocery and hardware stores, are limited to 20 percent of their maximum occupancy, according to the most recent DOH health order, with customers asked to stay 6 feet apart.

While the number of positive COVID-19 cases in Valencia County are low — 42 as of Tuesday, April 28 — Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp said according to a recent update, the county still has the potential to see increased cases.

An April 21 epidemiologic update done in partnership by Presbyterian, Los Alamos National Lab, Sandia National Lab and the New Mexico Department of Health, notes while the state has flattened the curve, work must now be done at the county level. The update includes Valencia County in a list of counties at risk of becoming future hot spots within the next month.

Culp said emergency medical service agencies throughout the county have seen an overall drop in calls for service, but in the last week and a half, there’s been an increase in what he called COVID-19 potential calls.

Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp

“We have also dealt with a few COVID-positive patients. So the potential (for exposure) is there for our first responders,” Culp said. “It’s still there and there’s no switch to open all the businesses back up to the way they were operating before.

“We have to be careful so we don’t have a sudden spike. For the most part, everybody has done a good job but we still see longer lines at bigger stores with people not taking necessary precautions.”

The chief said any business reopenings will have to be done slowly and with precautions, with businesses taking measures to protect both their customers and employees.

“Things like staff wearing masks, doing their due diligence on cleaning, limiting the number of customers in a business,” he said. “Our normal is different now and will be for some time.”

David Morgan, a spokesman for the DOH, said via email New Mexico is in the midst of controlling what could be just the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We could not have done that without every New Mexican who has practiced social distancing and stayed home,” Morgan wrote.

He said just because a jurisdiction has low numbers currently does not mean it will stay that way.

“Indeed, the numbers are low in all likelihood because distancing has occurred. We all can see the way things are going in the northwestern part of the state. If any other part of the state thinks that can’t happen there, they are mistaken,” he wrote.

San Juan and McKinley county cases combined were at 1,328 on Tuesday, April 28, outpacing positive cases in Sandoval and Bernalillo counties, two of the most populated areas in the state.

“A situation like we have in the northwestern part of the state in particular does have an enormous impact on all other parts of the state, whether they have a high incidence of illness or not,” Morgan noted. “If a great percentage of our state’s medical capacity and personnel and equipment is focused on one particularly hard-hit region, it stands to reason there is less capacity and personnel and equipment for other parts, if they were to open up and become hard-hit themselves.

“I cannot emphasize this enough: no one wants the economy to stay closed. It will be any ongoing spread of the COVID-19 virus and the risk to human lives that will drive every decision about opening or closing in-state services in the future.”

Last Friday, the Valencia County Commission held a special meeting and approved 3-2 a resolution asking the governor to consider allowing non-essential businesses to reopen using the same standards as essential businesses and to allow local government to lead the local emergency response plan, rather than the state.

“We all, as a community, have lived through this pandemic the last several weeks. We know how to social distance, how to interact,” said Commission Chairman Jhonathan Aragon, the resolution’s sponsor. “I trust big box stores such as The Home Depot and Lowe’s are doing their best to keep customers distanced.

Jhonathan Aragon
Valencia County Commission Chairman

“But people are congregating in the big box stores. I think if we were able to have a few of our small businesses open with the same restrictions, we would be able to maybe minimize traffic in the big box stores and help small businesses be open after this pandemic.”

Commissioner Charles Eaton did not support the resolution, saying after being in a local Walmart, he felt there could be better controls.

“I’m concerned about the percentage of the population allowed in a Walmart. I think it should be less at this time, until we get better control over the situation,” Eaton said. “I know businesses would like to open up today but we’d have a bad situation. People’s health is more important than the economy at this time.”

Eaton and Commissioner Tom Mraz voted against the resolution, while Aragon, and Commissioners Gerard Saiz and David Hyder voted in favor.

The resolution is simply a request to the governor, Aragon said.

Vernon Mulanix, the director of Valencia County’s Small Business Development Center, is a small business advocate through and through, having been a business owner himself several times over.

“Overall, what we’re seeing is most companies are literally shut down. They were running along fine, revenue coming in, hiring employees and then one day, the doors are shut,” Mulanix said. “The concern I have for these businesses is that, through no fault of their own, all of a sudden they are not earning money. What is going to happen to their obligations? Is the government going to be there to help people when creditors start asking for money?”

While there are government relief programs being offered, the director said he has been frustrated with the process. Essentially, there’s a federal mandate to take care of these businesses and it’s been thrown in the Small Business Administration’s lap.

“They have continually reduced staff for the last 15 to 20 years until there are five staffers in the state. And they are faced with a monumental task; these are good people and they care,” he said. “As an organization, they have processed the equivalent of 14 years of loans in two weeks.”

Not laying blame on the SBA for its work, Mulinax said the majority of the assistance needs to go to small, successful businesses.

“If we don’t bail out and keep afloat the businesses that were doing OK before (the pandemic), we’ll be left with nothing but Amazon and big box stores,” he said. “And that terrifies me. The foundation of this country is small business.”

Mulinax said in his opinion if places with low numbers due to isolation reopen too soon, based on the data and models he’s seen, there was a real chance of a huge resurgence of the virus — one that could overload hospitals and shut things down yet again.

“I’m a business guy. When I owned my medical spa, I had fixed overhead of $10,000 to $20,000 a month, so this absolutely keeps me awake,” Mulinax said. “I understand and I care. But this thing is a virus and it doesn’t care.”

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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.