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The pain of 25 percent capacity

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When Gallup-McKinley Chamber of Commerce CEO Bill Lee was asked how businesses have fared over the last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, he paused.

“It’s been pretty tough,” Lee said.

But the Chamber has been on the frontlines of economic recovery, he said, providing information on best practices for staying open; writing grant applications to Gallup and McKinley County for relief; and advocating on behalf of businesses to state lawmakers for programs that will help them.

“We continue to see every business as important in our community,” Lee said, noting the Chamber’s Board of Directors made a decision to help any business in the area during the pandemic.

McKinley County is in a red-level category, that translates into business restrictions, which include no indoor dining and keeping essential retail spaces to 25 percent customer capacity. Lee is hopeful that more vaccinations can occur so that the county can move to the less-restrictive yellow level, which could help make up for the revenue that was lost last summer.

“What has been extremely frustrating has been the moving goal posts by the state. One day, you can open; the next day, you can’t,” Lee said.

The Chamber does not keep track of revenue generated or lost from each of its members, but according to Lee, at least 12 businesses have closed permanently since the pandemic started.

Lee added that Gallup-McKinley’s economic recovery from coronavirus is “going to be extremely hard,” given non-essential businesses, like theaters and bowling, have not been able to re-open and have not qualified for more relief.

Nevertheless, he doesn’t think the region’s “character” has been lost. “Our people are strong and resilient and finding ways to fight through and I think that’s all part of our character,” Lee said.

FOOD/CATERING

Badlands Grill has been closed for months due to the pandemic. Owner William Mataya said that operation at 50 percent needs to be in effect in order to make a profit. So, unlike other businesses operating at 25 percent, he’s keeping his doors shut. Badlands Grill could open in July, but that is only a projection.

“Safety is still number one and business is number two,” he said, noting some of his employees have had a family member die from COVID-19.

Badlands employs 16 people, who have all been paid through insurance, according to Mataya. Bills have been paid off thanks to government loans, but he doesn’t think his business can absorb any more.

Badlands’ revenue stems from indoor dining and special events — and Valentine’s Day is one of its busiest times.

“We’d be rockin’ and rollin’ right now,” he said.

Mataya said the pandemic “took us all by surprise,” but he thought it wouldn’t last.

“We never thought [it would be] a year,” he said. “We could be open and try, but throwing good money after bad isn’t going to help anyone.”

Mataya would like to see more of the community get vaccinated, “so life can get back close to normal” — even if that means a new normal.

HOSPITALITY

El Rancho Hotel — which is currently undergoing a remodel — has been operating at 25 percent capacity. Yet its gift shop has exceeded typical sales, said the hotel’s general manager, Teena Carney.

“People in the local community are shopping local, which is not something you typically see in a hotel gift shop,” she said. “The guests that are here are very mindful about, ‘Hey, let’s just pick up a T-shirt or something.’”

But the part of the business that has suffered the most is the El Rancho Restaurant. Over the summer, the establishment was able to host outdoor dining. But now, it’s doing takeout service only and much of the staff has been furloughed.

The fact that COVID-19 regulations for restaurants have changed over time makes it very difficult to plan for the future, Carney added.

“How do you bring employees back and three days later, tell them ‘Guess what? You’re furloughed again,’” she said.

The busiest time for El Rancho Hotel runs from the summer months through October. But until that peak period starts, “everybody’s holding their breath,” Carney said.

By Kevin Opsahl
Sun Correspondent

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