EUNICE — Opening day was by choice and a bit slow on Monday.
City officials in Eunice announced Friday the facilities operated by the city would be available for public use, conditioned on coronavirus safety rules, and businesses that chose to open their doors could do so if they followed the same rules.
Apparently, most retailers weren’t ready for opening beyond the restrictions set by the state emergency health orders of mid-March and April. And those who were discovered the customers remained cautious.
“I never have turned my ‘open’ sign off,” said Billie Bettis, owner and operator of B’s Coffee Shop. “I just let people know they can go through the drive-through. We haven’t had anybody coming in.”
As of Monday, however, her inside dining area was open for business, but only for five people, none of whom ever came in.
“That’s 25% of capacity. We can only hold 20. A quarter of that is five,” Bet-tis said in the early afternoon Monday. “Nobody’s came in, but most of our business is in our drive-through anyway.”
Her husband City Councilor Terry Bettis said she told him that by the 2 p.m. closing time, still no customers had come inside the dining area.
Jim Henneke, owner of the Dairy Freez, told the News-Sun he had had little advance notice of the opening plan, but preparation of his restaurant’s preferred buffet by lunchtime Monday would have been difficult.
“We’re fast food, but we also have a buffet. Most of the oilfield workers would come in for the buffet. There’s no way we can do a buffet in this situation here,” Henneke said. “Everybody would be touching the tongs. I don’t know how you could approach that right now.”
Besides, Henneke said, the current traffic of customers has slowed due to the recent serious oilfield crash.
“There’s almost no oilfield,” Henneke said. “Some days, we’re 30% down. Some days, we’re 45% down. So, we made the decision before all this, when they started talking, my wife and I said we’re not going to close or lay off anybody, no matter what.
“This is a temporary thing. This is not forever. I just can’t see laying people off that have worked for us for a long time. It’s going to be back. It’s money. You’re going to make more money. If we use all of our savings, it will be back,” Henneke said.
One of the safety procedures required by the city’s planned phased re-opening includes having hand sanitizers for employees and customers.
“Trying to find hand sanitizers is like trying to find gold over here in Eunice. You’re not going to find it,” Henneke said. “It’s almost impossible to find.”
Henneke projected a possible reopening of the dining area, under restrictions, by the end of the week, but he refused to promise anything.
With Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 30 order extending the state’s shutdown until May 15, Henneke noted a discrepancy in the state’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
“These people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have no clue what runs this state. They’re decimating people. We don’t have any amount of the COVID to speak of in this area,” Henneke said, noting around 30 percent of the state’s budget comes from southeastern New Mexico while a minute amount of the coronavirus cases have occurred here.
“Those people in Santa Fe are highly educated idiots. They need to get in touch with real people in this state, not just the urban area,” Henneke said. “The rural areas are just important as the people in the cities, if not more.”
The husband of B’s Coffee Shop owner, Terry Bettis, hosted a rally last week with elected officials and Eunice business people in attendance. The council had approved a resolution seeking the governor’s approval of reopening businesses with virus safety provisions.
The initial results of the city’s opening of “non-essential” businesses, as defined by the state Department of Health last month, disappointed the councilman.
“It wasn’t as much as I expected. I know there are some restaurants that did open their dining rooms. So did B’s. I asked (Billie Bettis) if anybody came in before she closed at 2 o’clock and she said no,” Terry Bettis said. “I really expected it to be better, but as you know the oilfield is taking a hit big time, so we don’t have as much oilfield traffic in town as we used to.”
Still concerned about the shutdown of the entire state, Terry Bettis said of the governor, “She’s treating the whole state with one blanket order and not looking at a per county basis. … It’s hurting business big time.”
The councilor concluded, “We opened today and we haven’t had any problems. … As far as I know, everybody is on board; they’re just hoping the customers will come back now.”
A letter covering a city council-approved resolution proposed three phases to gradually reopen businesses that Lujan Grisham had shut down for more than a month to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus and its disease COVID-19.
“We requested a written response,” City Manager Jordan Yutzy told the News-Sun in a previous interview, noting the governor’s new emergency health order on Thursday allowing curbside and delivery business openings only was an insufficient response for Eunice.
The city’s letter had stated, “If no response is received by close of business April 30, 2020 the Eunice City Council will assume that the three-phase plan is approved by you and your office and will instruct businesses to reopen May 2, 2020.”
Postings Friday on the city’s social media page and the city’s website approved opening of businesses on Monday.
Meanwhile, state Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, said he agreed with Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton who suggested during last week’s business rally that all businesses in the city are “essential” because the whole town serves the oil and gas industry, which has been determined by the state’s Department of Health to be essential.