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Luis Sánchez Saturno/New Mexican file photo

Shoppers fill the parking lot outside Walmart in Española in the fall. Big-box stores are allowed to have up to 25 percent of their capacity or 75 shoppers under a 14-day lockdown in New Mexico that began Nov. 16. Small retail businesses say that creates an unfair advantage for big companies.

The big box/small business debate was rejoined Monday (Nov. 16) as New Mexico began a new, 14-day shutdown amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

Large retailers - not just the Walmarts, but also stores like REI, Big 5 Sporting Goods and Ross Dress for Less - opened, albeit at capacity limits, while other, smaller stores agonized at limitations imposed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's most recent public health orders.

To the little guy and gal, curbside pickup is simply not enough, if it works at all.

Daniella Fox, the owner of Daniella Clothing for women in Santa Fe, said the struggles of smaller operators remain as difficult as earlier this year during the first shutdown.

"As far as the space and social distancing, we're a smaller store and we get less customers," Fox said. "We can social distance. We can do 25 percent capacity. It's just hurting local business. It's not hurting national or corporate business."

According to the language of Lujan Grisham's order, big-box retailers and large retail stores are exempt from the order prohibiting in-person shopping. That allows for larger outlets to remain open, though at no more than 25 percent capacity or 75 people in a store at any given time.

All retail businesses regardless of size can continue with curbside shopping through the duration of the order.

However, for some businesses, there is no such thing as curbside. Gyms, barbershops, nail salons and other nonessential businesses are closed until at least Nov. 30. In-person dining also has been halted, with only takeout and curbside service allowed.

The order provides exemptions for retail services that provide an essential function, including grocery stores, pharmacies and other health-oriented businesses.

But some big retail outlets, closed during New Mexico's first stay-at-home order, are now in operation during this go-round.

REI, for example, was not open for in-person shopping in March, but it will operate during the November shutdown. According to a statement from the company, based in Washington state, the store in the Santa Fe Railyard now falls under state guidelines.

"REI is considered an essential business - with its bicycle and repair shop open per New Mexico's Public Health Emergency Response Act and its definition of a retail space," the company said in the statement. "Beyond bicycles, outdoor apparel and gear, the co-op also sells emergency supplies, food, emergency cooking, water filtration and more.

"We recognize the unique role we play in helping our members and customers get outside. We believe operating a limited capacity is a way for us to safely serve our members and customers."

Governor's office spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett wrote in an email that large retailers that can provide curbside pickup are encouraged to do so, and the language of the order was not intended to encourage stores to continue in-person operation but to allow for businesses that may be the only retailer in a more rural area to remain open during the order.

Still, a description as to which businesses fall under the "big box" and "large retailer" classification remains vague.

"Large retailers - i.e., a Walmart - are sometimes the only store servicing an area or community in our large, rural state. They can have a few people inside the store at one time, the intent being for the truly essential purchases. If businesses are abusing these allowances, no matter their size those allowances will be eliminated," Sackett wrote. "The state needs partners in preventing the spread of the virus, not individuals and businesses that only want to poke holes in the requirements and work around them."

Patrick Block, a lobbyist for the New Mexico Retail Association, said that allowing big-box stores that also sell groceries to remain open could exacerbate the issue in small towns by forcing people to congregate at one or two locations. But he acknowledged some large retailers like Walmart may be the only store of their kind in some towns.

"What we think makes a lot of sense is to keep the crowd as spread out as you can," Block said.

Block said the organization has been advising its members to follow the order as closely as possible and to check with local public health organizations to make sure that their businesses aren't violating the most recent health orders. Each violation of the ordinance can lead to a $5,000 fine per day.

Fox, who said her business was driven in part by tourists and individuals with second homes in the Santa Fe area, said that since the pandemic started she's taken a 70 percent sales hit, while having to cut her employee roll and inventory by half. She's also gone without a salary.

She contended the new order "diverts any of our customers to big-box stores. It makes for an unfair playing field and hurts at our busiest time of the year."

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