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Santa Fe Restaurants, Hotels Rejoice as Dining Returns

By Teya Vitu

Wednesday was a red-letter day for dining, tourism and hospitality in New Mexico. Well, make that yellow-letter day.

With many areas of the state, including Santa Fe County, emerging from COVID-19 red status and moving to the less restrictive yellow, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the state Department of Health lifted the 14-day quarantine on out-of-state visitors and New Mexicans returning home, plus allowed indoor dining in the state’s largest cities for the first time since mid-November.

Those two items would’ve been enough to cause celebration in tourism-dependent Santa Fe, but there was a third bit of good news: limits on hotel occupancy are increasing from 40 percent occupancy to 60 percent.

The 14-day quarantine had been in place since July 1 and had wreaked havoc on the tourism sector. Plenty of visitors drifted into Santa Fe and ignored the edict, but many more canceled reservations or didn’t make plans for Santa Fe at all.

“The quarantine was the big, big thing,” said Jeff Mahan, president of the Santa Fe Lodgers Association. “This has been a battle. We are survivors.”

Tourism Santa Fe Executive Director Randy Randall said the effect of dropping the quarantine might be seen almost immediately.

La Fonda on the Plaza has 40 percent of its rooms booked for this weekend’s Valentine’s Day, President’s Day and Chinese New Year.

“We’re going to try to hit 60 percent,” La Fonda general manager Rik Blyth said. “This [past] weekend was the first time since Christmas that we hit the maximum 40 percent.”

For many in the hotel industry, relief couldn’t come soon enough. El Rey Court, a popular spot for tourists outside downtown, had not hit 40 percent since New Year’s weekend, general manager Sarah Bolen said.

“I think it’s going to be a lot easier to hit 60 percent now,” she said. “That 14-day quarantine is keeping a lot of people from coming.”

Indoor dining at restaurants also is a milestone for New Mexico, but there may not be a mad rush for all Santa Fe restaurants to open at 25 percent capacity. Some say they are worried about committing to a new plan with the possibility the county could return to red status.

“I don’t think we’re going to open inside,” said Dago Melara, general manager at Bumble Bee’s Baja Grill. “It doesn’t make sense for us to open with only three or four tables.”

Another restaurant, Pho Ava, has been doing OK with takeout offerings, co-owner Tommy Nguyen said. But a chance to open for indoor dining was welcomed.

“That’s big,” he said of a return to indoor dining. “That’s big news. It’s hard [without indoor dining].”

Though many in the industry writhed under the limits on indoor dining, some found a way to make it work. Ten Thousand Waves has kept its Izanami restaurant open throughout the pandemic with outdoor tents in summer and a sturdier pavilion once winter set in, company president Duke Klauck said.

“It’s surprisingly toasty,” he said. “We have been very busy. People started realizing this isn’t bad.”

Izanami has eight tables outdoors, providing seating for 30 to 35. Indoor dining should return by the weekend.

“We’ll do it,” Klauck said. “There are people that don’t have the spirit [to eat in the pavilion]. That will give us another 20 to 25 seats. That’s certainly worth doing.”

A popular downtown restaurant, Cowgirl BBQ, closed in mid-November with plans to reopen March 1. That target will stay in place.

“We are staying closed until March 1,” Cowgirl co-owner, president and chef Patrick Lambert said. “The reason we are not opening right way is because we are restructuring many things for COVID.”

Dolina Cafe & Bakery is opening Thursday with three or four tables inside.

“I am just personally super excited to see people sit down in a real place with silverware,” said owner Annamaria Brezna.

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