Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s top state health official imposed a temporary ban on public gatherings of 100 people or more Thursday – one of the most aggressive measures of its kind in the country, intended to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The ban, effective immediately, came just a few hours before the state announced all K-12 public schools will be closed for three weeks starting Monday, and the Archdiocese of Santa Fe moved to cancel its church services and its schools.
The ban on large public gatherings will apply to stadiums, arenas, conference centers and other gathering spaces.
It was issued shortly before Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office announced two more New Mexico residents had tested positive for COVID-19 – bringing the state’s total number of confirmed cases to six. The latest cases involved a Santa Fe County woman in her 50s and a Bernalillo County woman in her 40s, both of whom are at home in isolation, the Governor’s Office said.
“I will say it again: New Mexicans need to be prepared and proactive, and avoid large public gatherings,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “I regret that this will affect previously planned and even ongoing events, but right now public health is the first consideration.”
For now, the ban on large public gatherings will not apply to airports, public transportation and shopping malls. Also exempt from the order are weddings, funerals, restaurants, bars and hospitals.
“We said yesterday morning the situation would evolve,” Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said Thursday in announcing the ban on large public gatherings. “It will continue to evolve. New Mexicans can expect their health officials to make the best decisions possible as we move through this public health challenge day by day.”
The governor declared a public health emergency Wednesday after New Mexico’s first three cases of the coronavirus were confirmed. A fourth presumptive positive was announced later in the day.
The state’s first four cases all involve individuals in their 60s or older with recent travel histories. Of the two additional cases confirmed Thursday, at least one involved recent travel to Italy. In the other, state officials were investigating a “possible travel link.”
More concerts, conferences and other events were also canceled or put on hold Thursday, a day after Lujan Grisham announced the postponement of the Gathering of Nations, the world’s largest powwow, which had been scheduled to take place next month in Albuquerque.
The Democratic governor has faced some criticism for her aggressive response to the COVID-19 outbreak, though many lawmakers and local officials have expressed support.
“We have seen what has happened in other states; we have seen what organizations such as the NCAA and many others have decided; we want to be as safe and secure and preventive as we can be,” Lujan Grisham said. “New Mexico is not going to wait as long as some other states to make the hard decisions about this pandemic.”
New Mexico’s ban on large public gatherings was announced on the same day Utah’s governor unveiled a similar plan. The governors of Washington, Oregon and California have also announced such policies in recent days, though the bans on large public gatherings in those states apply to gatherings of 250 people or more.
Order may be extended
New Mexico’s temporary ban on public gatherings of 100 people or more prompted immediate questions about enforcement and practical impact.
A Governor’s Office spokeswoman confirmed the order does not require movie theaters to close, for instance, but it is intended to ensure that no more than 100 people are in close proximity to one another in a single theater.
In addition, churches and other houses of worship are exempted from the order, though Lujan Grisham did say Wednesday that New Mexicans should think twice about attending religious services. However, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe issued an announcement late Thursday that it would cancel services until further notice.
The Lujan Grisham administration cited a state law that gives the health department the authority to “close any public place and forbid gatherings of people when necessary for the protection of the public health.”
The same section of the law also stipulates the agency’s director can maintain and enforce regulations aimed at controlling the spread of communicable diseases deemed to pose a serious public threat.
The temporary ban on large public gatherings is tied to the governor’s public health emergency order. That order is slated to last through April 9, but could be extended.
Meanwhile, the Governor’s Office clarified comments made by Lujan Grisham on Wednesday that suggested all non-essential state employees were being ordered to work remotely.
While many employees will temporarily work remotely from home, each state agency has been tasked with coming up with its own plan, Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said.
“We’re trying to lock down unnecessary risks,” Stelnicki told the Journal.
For instance, the state’s Motor Vehicle Division offices remained open to the public Thursday, but state officials were reminding customers they can also renew their registration and driver’s licenses online.
Charlie Moore, a spokesman for the Taxation and Revenue Department, which includes the MVD, said the department is evaluating which employees should work from home and how many laptops are available.
Travelers asked to self-isolate
The state Department of Health also issued new travel recommendations Thursday, urging anyone who’s traveled outside the state to self-isolate for 14 days on their return to New Mexico.
The agency also discouraged future travel and warned residents that they run the risk of not being able to return to New Mexico “as travel bans can be implemented.”
Lujan Grisham earlier this week advised people to avoid travel, but the recommendation for self-isolation is new.
“Given that our knowledge of high-risk areas changes every day,” the Department of Health said on its COVID-19 website, “and that airports provide possible exposure to hundreds of people whose travel histories are not known, we are also recommending that individuals who have traveled outside of the state be in self-isolation for a period of 14 calendar days.”
State health officials Thursday also announced expanded testing capabilities for the COVID-19. TriCore Reference Laboratories is now performing coronavirus tests.
Other impacts were also being felt as all New Mexico State Parks will close for overnight camping starting today due to the state’s ban on large public gatherings.
Meanwhile, both of New Mexico’s U.S. senators – Democrats Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich – said they were temporarily reducing staffing in their Washington, D.C., offices.
Udall temporarily closed his office and most of his staff will be working remotely from home in response to the coronavirus outbreak, with just a small number of staffers continuing to work in the nation’s capital.
The senators’ New Mexico offices will remain open in order to help constituents.
Journal staff writer Scott Turner contributed to this report.