New Mexico appeared on a path to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic as businesses reopened and thousands were poised to return to work.
As COVID-19 caseloads declined throughout New Mexico’s 33 counties, restrictions on restaurants and other public venues were lifted as the risk of infection seemed to dissipate.
In Carlsbad, the recovery was met with the opening of numerous new businesses.
A second Taco Bell opened earlier this spring, while a second Dominos pizza restaurant was nearing completion on National Parks Highway near the Village at Carlsbad apartment complex.
A permanent Papa John’s pizza eatery was also expected to open on South Canal Street in the coming months.
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Jeff Campbell, director of business development at the Carlsbad Department of Development said the pandemic did lead to the closure of numerous businesses but that most owners in the city were able to hang on and now hope to capitalize on the reopening of the local economy.
“Although we did lose some businesses during the past year, many have weathered the storm and have begun to reopen in accordance with the State’s color coded levels of re-opening,” he said.
Eddy County was elevated to a “green” designation on Wednesday meaning most of its COVID-19 prevention restrictions were lifted, allowing for increased capacity at indoor dining establishments and public gatherings.
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To earn “green” status, Eddy County’ reported numbers below two State-mandated benchmarks.
The county had 7.2 cases per 100,000 – below the State-mandated benchmark of eight cases – and a positivity rate of 2.13 percent compared with the requirement of less than 5 percent.
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The change meant more businesses were likely to reopen in the coming days, and Campbell urged residents to support local establishments to help the Carlsbad area recovery from the economic recession brought on by the pandemic.
He credited Carlsbad’s survival to its diverse business environment as food chains continue to show interest and sought to expand in the city throughout the health crisis.
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“Growth slowed, of course, due to the pandemic. Some fields of business were hit harder than others,” Campbell said. “However, due to Carlsbad’s strong and diverse economy, we were lucky enough to not only maintain solid interest in new businesses, but to have some open and others either begin or continue construction on projects.”
He said Carlsbad and Eddy County would continue to grow as the pandemic subsided, driven by the oil and gas, potash mining and nuclear sectors which would in-turn support service industries like dining and hotels.
“Based on the diverse industrial base in Carlsbad and Eddy county, the area is poised to remain strong and continue growing as we move forward,” Campbell said.
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New Mexico goes back to work
Throughout the health crisis and subsequent restrictions, jobs were lost throughout New Mexico.
As of January 2021, the state’s unemployment rate was at 8.7 percent, per data from the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions.
New Mexico had one of the highest unemployment rates in the Western U.S., compared with 6.8 percent in Texas, 6.6 percent in Colorado and 6.7 percent in Arizona.
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California’s rate was higher with 9 percent, while Utah’s unemployment of 3.1 percent was less than half of New Mexico’s, records show.
As of February, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the national unemployment rate at 6.2 percent.
Eddy County’s unemployment was above both the national and state average at 8.3 percent, rising from a 7.8 percent rate reported in December 2020 and more than doubling since January 2020’s rate of 3.2 percent months before the pandemic hit the state.
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Neighboring Lea County had the second-highest unemployment rate in the state at 13 percent, per the report, climbing from 12.4 percent and almost tripling since January 2020.
Most counties in New Mexico saw similarly dramatic increases in unemployment as the pandemic set in and businesses shuttered.
Department of Workforce Solutions Cabinet Secretary Bill McCamley said rural communities such as in southeast New Mexico could continue to face challenges with broadband connectivity as more employees continue work from home amid the recovery.
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But he said the Department is optimistic as it shifts from helping New Mexicans receive unemployment benefits to putting them back to work.
Local offices throughout the state reopened for in-person meetings by appointment, McCamley said, which can help them not only find jobs but increase skill sets for more advanced professions.
“A lot of people coming out of this pandemic are going to see the opportunity to do even better than they were,” McCamley said. “If you were working minimum wage before, you can become a nurse and help build your community.
“We’re going to start shifting from purely unemployment to how do we get you back to work.”
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McCamley said he expected fields in the healthcare, education, construction, science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) sectors to see exceptional growth in the state’s recovery.
“If we didn’t understand the importance of healthcare before the pandemic, we sure do now. We need everyone from nurses to brain surgeons,” McCamley said. “If you’re a trained welder or pipefitter, you’re working right now. The long-term salary prospects for those jobs are really high.”
The Department also plans to work with New Mexicans seeking to gain advanced training, helping from local offices connect prospective college students with support funds that can pay for tuition, student loans and other needs in higher education, under the Workforce Innovations and Opportunities Act (WIOA).
In the Permian Basin region, as the fossil fuel markets recover, McCamley said workers will likely need additional training as the industry relies more on automation.
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“Oil and gas prices have continued to stay pretty stable and even rise so you’re going to see needs for those jobs,” he said. “That means you’re going to need more skills to compete for those jobs. A high school diploma is just not going to cut it.”
Most important to reopening the economy and jobs in New Mexico though, McCamley said, is vaccinations.
He said public health is closely tied to the economic recovery.
“New Mexicans are doing a real good job getting the vaccines in their arms. The more people get vaccinated, the better our economic situation will be, and more jobs will open up,” McCamley said. “They are intricately interlinked.”
Adrian Hedden can be reached at 575-618-7631, [email protected] or @AdrianHedden on Twitter.