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Farmington restaurant owner closes dining room after facing loss of food service permit


State officials suspend permits for four restaurants in NM; Weck's still open for take-out orders and curbside pickups

Mike Easterling   | Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — A Farmington restaurant owner who tried to defy the governor's COVID-19 public health order by keeping his dining room open earlier this week says he will now comply with the order and has closed his dining rooms.

Michael Dennis, owner of the Farmington and Santa Fe Weck's restaurant locations, announced in a social media post last weekend that he would be keeping the dining rooms of both restaurants open in violation of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's directive last week prohibiting indoor dining at restaurants.

He said he made that decision to help his employees who are fighting for their financial survival.

Dennis kept his dining rooms open on July 13-14 in violation of that order. But he announced late on July 14 he had received a warning from a state inspector that the food service permit for both restaurants would be pulled if he did not comply with the governor's orders.

More: Gov's order rescinding indoor dining creates blowback

A statement from a public relations agency hired by Dennis indicated was closing both of the Weck's locations he owns. That statement was modified on the afternoon of July 15 to clarify that the restaurants would be open to offer take-out orders and curb-side delivery. Dennis also is working on a plan to offer outdoor dining at the restaurants next week.

"My heart breaks for our employees," Dennis said in a statement issued July 14 through the PR agency. "Their livelihoods are at stake and the federal assistance for unemployment is ending. At a time that they were beginning to see a light at the end of a dark season, we are told we can no longer serve indoors. Unfortunately, we have no patios at either of our two restaurants."

A press release from the New Mexico Environment Department states an inspector from the agency visited the Weck's locations owned by Dennis in Farmington and Santa Fe on July 14 and found their dining rooms operating. The release states the management at both locations agreed immediately to cease indoor dining and comply with the public health orders.

The release states the department may take further action in the case.

Dennis said his decision to keep his dining rooms open earlier in the week was not an attempt on his part to be difficult or noncompliant.

"We requested more time for the governor to take a balanced approach," he stated, adding that he and other merchants need clear direction on how and when they can operate their businesses successfully.

Dennis had struck a defiant tone in his weekend social media post, arguing that the liberties of business owners were under attack and that the governor's decision was not about making people feel safe. He claimed he had the support of his customers in making the decision and indicated he hoped to see hundreds of restaurants band together and defy the public health order.

"We will work together to get the National attention that we need to move this Governor to make the right decision, not one driven by politics," he wrote.

But Dennis changed his mind after facing the loss of his permits. The warning from the state inspector apparently was no idle threat, as officials at the New Mexico Environment Department announced July 14 they had suspended the food permits for a handful of restaurants in the state that opened for dine-in service in violation of the governor's orders.

The list included two Pizza Inn locations in Carlsbad, a hotel restaurant in Carlsbad and a Pizza Inn in Hobbs. State officials said the eateries were ordered to close immediately and faced legal action from the department if they failed to do so.

Related: New Mexico restaurants defiant of Gov. Lujan Grisham's order to close amid COVID-19

The environment department release indicated the owners of the eateries could request that their food service permits be reinstated if they corrected the violations.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription.