For Santa Fe tour operator Monique Schoustra, the past year was "the offseason that just kept going and going and going."
The final credit card transaction she ran in 2020 for Great Southwest Adventures, the business she co-founded in 1998, was on March 10 — the day before New Mexico announced its first three cases of COVID-19 disease and declared a public health emergency.
The SARS-CoV-2 pandemic stymied her business at the beginning of its crucial season bringing tour buses to sites around northern New Mexico: the Bandelier National Monument, Chama River Valley, Pecos and Chaco national parks and Taos, among other locations.
"We were hopeful, like everyone was, that this was just going to be a few months … a temporary blip," she recalled.
Instead, the pandemic became an open-ended emergency. Schoustra counted herself lucky that her business had little overhead. She called her insurer to reduce coverage and went into hibernation mode. The phone seldom rang.
"It's not like we had to say no to anybody," she said.
New Mexico clamped down early and hard on social gatherings in an effort to slow community spread of the highly contagious and dangerous illness, ordering nonessential businesses to close or operate remotely for a time and instituting a mask mandate, quarantine requirements for out-of-state visitors and tight controls on occupancy at retail stores, places of worship, hotels and food and drink establishments.
On the emergency's anniversary this year, New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said that without the state's early effort to limit gatherings and implement testing and contact tracing, data modeling projected there would have been 1.8 million infections, six times the number of hospitalizations and more than 15,000 lives lost.
COVID-19 creates $4.3 billion loss for New Mexico
The impacts of the pandemic crossed every sector of the economy, and the state's top two industries in particular: Oil and gas, which was already seeing a correction after a recent boom, and tourism.
"It just brought our entire industry to a screeching halt," New Mexico Tourism Secretary Jen Paul Schroer said, after the state entered 2020 with a nine-year growth trend and an "incredible" 2019.
Since branding the state with the "New Mexico True" slogan and logo, visitor spending increased 34 percent from 2011 to 2019.
Just before COVID-19 arrived in New Mexico, a state-commissioned study of the state's outdoors-related industry by research firm Headwaters Economics reported 10.1 percent growth in direct tourism employment between 2011 and 2020, with a projected total of 93,617 jobs — 8.3 percent statewide — through direct, indirect or "induced employment" (referring to jobs created as a result of economic activity sparked by tourism).
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And that report focused on New Mexico's outdoors. Within the state, canceled conferences, trade shows, festivals and regional athletic events choked off bookings at convention centers and hotels in Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Santa Fe, Roswell and other cities.
The Tourism Department has projected the pandemic's impact on the industry, including unemployment claims, lost local tax revenue and economic activity, at $4.3 billion — not counting longer-term losses from business closures and workers moving elsewhere.
'We basically shut our doors'
Approximately 75 miles south of Albuquerque and close to the center of New Mexico sits the Macey Conference Center, an event venue and art gallery with a 600-seat performance venue on the picturesque campus of the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro.
The central location makes the campus a strategic location for statewide conferences. New Mexico first responders and colleagues nationwide have frequently gathered here for large training events. The Macey is also home to a performing arts series and has hosted musical acts from around the world.
The pandemic brought all of that to a halt.
"We couldn't have anybody in the building," manager Gloria Gutierrez-Anaya said. "We basically shut our doors."
She estimated the lost revenue at more than $600,000.
With visitors restricted and revenue halted, the center turned to a local focus, first by lending its parking lot for COVID-19 testing of students, faculty and staff.
Later, as public health orders allowed, students took the lead in helping the Macey offer live-streamed concerts from the stage — with musicians six feet apart, and 18 feet away from the sound engineer — onto Facebook, YouTube and Twitch. The Macey's website added a virtual "tip jar" for donations to the center and performers.
In the spring, the center incorporated drive-in outdoor concerts for vehicles spaced 18 feet apart, permitting some patrons to sit in lawn chairs. The center also introduced virtual art receptions.
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Macey Center turns to local artists and livestreams during pandemic
Even with the easing of quarantine requirements on travelers from outside New Mexico, Gutierrez-Anaya said the center would remain focused for a time on New Mexico-based acts.
"Even though the restrictions are a little bit lenient, we still want to make sure that we don't bring anybody from out of state until we kind of get the go-ahead, and make sure that we have all the state's guidelines followed," she said.
Like many enterprises that used the pandemic period to retool their facilities and appraise their business model, she said the lull had "given us the opportunity to train and to learn — the cameras, the streaming, the sound, so we can offer this moving forward to conferences down the road."
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She did not anticipate the "on" switch moving as quickly as the "off" switch did. Even if the state and its visitors approach herd immunity through vaccinations, she said, "I still don't think people are going to be comfortable coming to sit in a 600-seat theatre next to a person that they have no idea where they're from or where they've been. Until they build up their confidence again, how do we continue to offer this service and give them some type of entertainment at home?"
Some of the region's attractions, on the other hand, are site-specific: The twice-annual opening of the Trinity Site, where the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945, canceled both of its open house events in 2020 as well as the April 2021 event.
The annual Festival of the Cranes in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, another regional event that fills local hotel rooms, has been canceled until 2022.
Still another regional tourist attraction, the Very Large Array astronomical radio observatory 50 miles west of Socorro, suspended most operations and remains closed to the public.
'They were looking for someone to blame'
Schroer said the Tourism Department quickly pivoted from building an industry to helping fortify businesses against the pandemic's fallout.
The agency produced webinars to communicate with the industry the knowns and unknowns about the public health orders, safety and technical support. This evolved into helping prepare for reopening as well.
Tourism was also in the middle of the state's COVID-19 safety certification program for businesses and the "NM Safe Promise" program helping owners implement safety measures and communicate with the public about them, including the state's sometimes-controversial mask mandate.
Another initiative was to partner with the Small Business Development Council, bringing on tourism professionals to serve as coaches for SBDC's extensive network of business owners to help clarify public health guidance and connect local enterprises toward millions of dollars in federal recovery programs and grants. Schroer credited that partnership with saving 800 jobs during the emergency.
Schoustra served as a coach at her local SBDC chapter, cold-calling business owners to ask about their needs and match them with resources such as the Payroll Protection Program and other loans or grants.
"Some people were very angry and they were looking for someone to blame — 'Why is my business shut down, why is the government doing this?'" she recalled. "I could completely empathize, and I could also say there is an international public health crisis going on: Do you really want to open and put yourself and your family at risk?"
Nonetheless, businesses in the service industry staged occasional protests opposing restrictions on dine-in services, and several of them challenged New Mexico's public health orders in court last summer, only for the state Supreme Court to uphold them.
And Schoustra remarked that "not all of the programs that were available worked for everybody."
A lot of smaller businesses, for instance, depend on seasonal independent contractors and workers, and did not have much payroll, which made the Payroll Protection Program less effective for them.
On the other hand: "The pandemic unemployment insurance, the federal kick-in money, helped a lot of independent operators get through," she said. "That was really a godsend, just to help people be able to pay for their rent and pay for food. The state has been trying really hard to help people."
While the state health department and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took most of the political heat, Schoustra said the Tourism Department was "super proactive" about communicating and helping businesses weather the pandemic, as well as "shifting the conversation to really acknowledge the breadth of tourism-based businesses in New Mexico, that it's not just hotels, it's all these other things that make up the whole."
She said operators in the tour and guiding industries had pulled together as a community to help one another, but said inevitably many businesses across the economy would not make it.
"We're all kind of holding our breath to see who's going to survive," she said.
Her concern extended to tribal communities that depend on tourism, such as the Taos Pueblo and Pueblo de San Ildefonso.
An appeal to New Mexico lawmakers
This winter, Lujan Grisham included a $25 million special appropriation to help New Mexico's tourism industry rebound its marketing efforts in her 2022 budget recommendation, to "expedite our state’s efforts to diversify our economy and get back on track."
Schroer sought an additional $45 million to support tourism businesses, bolster the events industry specifically and develop an industry career development program.
Ultimately, lawmakers approved a special appropriation of $7 million for tourism renewal — a tenth of the $70 million requested, but Schroer was sanguine about the decision.
During the legislative session this winter, she said, "we still weren't quite sure how the vaccine rollout would proceed and how quickly we'd get to herd immunity. I think with that uncertainty (lawmakers) had a very tough job of prioritizing all of the different needs."
The federal American Rescue Plan included funds to assist the tourism industry, but Schoer said the department was still waiting for guidance on how the funds can be spent.
"We're going to be able to make sure that we're making those marketing dollars work as hard as possible," she said.
In April, Schroer kicked off a post-pandemic marketing campaign with a revamped version of the "New Mexico True" logo.
Hobbs positions itself for tourism
In the southeastern corner of the state, Lea County benefits from oil production in the Permian Basin that straddles New Mexico and Texas.
Revenue from the industry has allowed the city of Hobbs to make substantial quality-of-life investments for its residents — amounting to more than $200 million, according to Mayor Sam Cobb — without taking on bond debt.
Cobb said that keeps downward pressure on local taxes and allows the city to keep user fees low.
Some of those assets have also positioned Hobbs to compete for tourism dollars.
The city boasts thousands of hotel rooms, but during the most recent oil and gas boom the majority were occupied for workforce housing. That changed when prices dropped in 2020, with production slowing even before the pandemic knocked it down to drastic lows.
"Now, with the downturn in oil and gas, it's creating opportunities for us to go leverage those assets … and start really focusing on regional tourism," Cobb said.
In fact, Hobbs is founding a convention and visitors bureau to begin crunching the economic numbers and begin marketing the city as a tourist destination and recreational center, not just an oil town, with Lea County's FAA-certified commercial airport welcoming flights daily.
A state-of-the-art athletic complex pulls youth softball and baseball tournaments from across the region and has won praise from the United States Specialty Sports Association.
In 2015, the city opened Rockwind Community Links, a public 27-hole golf course that appeals to non-golfers as well with a restaurant and live music venue.
A casino and horse-racing track sits almost in walking distance of a county-owned event center with a 5,000-seat event venue and conference rooms, as well as the CORE Center for Recreational Excellence.
The $60 million recreational center is a 158,000-square-foot facility with play equipment for children, two indoor water parks, gym facilities, four full-size basketball courts, an indoor soccer field and a swimming and diving arena equipped with bleachers for spectators.
With oil production having ebbed and resuming with "a much more disciplined approach," Cobb said the city would seize on the opportunity to market its amenities and hospitality sector as a recreational magnet competing with Midland–Odessa, Lubbock and Amarillo, Texas as well as New Mexico destinations.
'People want to feel that they're safe'
At the end of April, Lujan Grisham announced a pathway to reopening New Mexico, retiring most of its public health restrictions on gatherings and business activity by the end of June, or as soon as 60 percent of New Mexico residents are fully vaccinated.
Schroer said New Mexico is well-positioned to welcome visitors from out of state — and their money.
"(We have) a phenomenal reputation of how we managed the pandemic. … People want to feel that they're safe," she said. "Our reputation … as a safe place, somewhere that took the pandemic very seriously, that operationalized COVID-safe practices within businesses … all test really well with consumers."
New Mexico's outdoor locations also provide a competitive advantage in a post-COVID environment, she said: "People are looking for wide-open spaces to enjoy outdoor recreation. They're still looking for wide open spaces, and we can deliver that."
Schoustra said that since winter, she has been noticing an increase in vehicles with out-of-state license plates at trailheads, around town and on public lands.
"A whole lot of people are choosing just to do their own thing, which is unfortunate for those of us who are tour guides, because we can take you and give you a more enhanced experience," she said. "We've also had some people contact us and say, 'Hey can we caravan with you to the trailhead?' and then they feel safe being outside on the trail."
One cloud over some outdoor attractions, however, are the effects of climate change, including long-term drought.
In Elephant Butte, for instance, where a recreational industry including camping, boating and fishing and a state park have been built around the state's largest reservoir, the federal Bureau of Reclamation has announced the reservoir's water level will need to be drained at least 50 feet, possibly more, to meet its obligations to irrigators as well as to Mexico.
Schroer focused on what is in her department's control: Marketing New Mexico's assets and helping local governments and business owners improve their social media and other internet presentations, claiming their Google business listings and boosting their presence on search results.
She predicted that New Mexico's "drive market," destinations reached by road rather than aircraft, would bounce back first, activating New Mexico's scenic drives and historic Route 66 attractions.
"Being able to say that New Mexico is one of the lowest-density population states is a great selling point," Schoustra suggested. "This is one of the easiest places to socially distance."
'A big question mark'
Since the Sun-News interviewed Schoustra, Great Southwest Adventures has resumed operations, with its guides vaccinated and maintaining some precautions.
As she mulled reopening her business, Schoustra was considering how to conduct van rides safely, providing air flow, requiring masks and limiting the size of parties — at prices that would be viable: "If you have two people rather than eight, that's a big hit financially."
A large portion of her business has come via conferences or conventions that come to Santa Fe and work tours into the schedule. She wondered how much of that business would come back in 2021, or even 2022.
"It's a big question mark," she said. "I think a lot of companies are going to say they're not going to the expense of these 200-person gatherings."
And while she prepares for resuming and rebuilding in this new chapter of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, Schoustra was also aware of warnings by epidemiologists about future pandemics and thinking about lessons learned this year.
"I hope the world has learned that the quicker you deal with a crisis like this, and do it together, that it's more likely to have a better outcome more quickly," she said.