State, city set new public health restrictions

Medical personnel screen patients Sunday at the Presbyterian COVID-19 drive-up testing center at PresNow in Northwest Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)
Medical personnel screen patients Sunday at the Presbyterian COVID-19 drive-up testing center at PresNow in Northwest Albuquerque. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

As fears over coronavirus intensified Sunday, state and local leaders announced sweeping and wide-ranging changes that they hope will mitigate the spread of the virus.

The number of cases in New Mexico has climbed to 17 after four Bernalillo County men, who are in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, tested positive for the virus.

In a flurry of directives and orders issued Sunday, authorities announced that restaurants and bars in New Mexico can no longer operate at more than half-capacity, state museums, parks and cultural institutions will be closed as will all ABQ BioPark facilities, and many Albuquerque and state employees will be working remotely.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Howie Morales is holed up in his Silver City home as a precautionary measure after traveling out of state.

The Rail Runner has suspended operations, and public defense lawyers are asking the state Supreme Court to take additional steps to reduce the risk of the virus from spreading in courtrooms and jails.

Dr. Paul Roth, the chancellor of University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center said the vast majority of employees will telecommute in coming weeks, though he said the new plans will not impact clinical functions. In a message about changes to the HSC work structure, he thanked the frontline health providers who continue to provide care.

“To lessen their work, please be dedicated practitioners of social distancing and proper personal hygiene, especially hand-washing,” he wrote. “Please remember to be kind and maintain a generous spirit to all around you as we work through this challenging situation.”

In her latest effort to limit COVID-19 cases, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel announced that restaurants and bars cannot operate at more than 50% occupancy, beginning 9 a.m. Monday.

The amended public health order prohibits establishments from seating more than six people at tables and booths, and it mandates that all occupied tables and booths be at least 6 feet apart. Also, patrons will no longer be allowed to be seated at bars, and they can’t be served if they’re standing. The restrictions apply to all restaurants, bars, breweries, eateries and other food establishments.

The state had previously issued an order prohibiting gatherings of 100 or more people, though it exempted gathering places such as shelters, retail or grocery stores, courthouses, jails, prisons and hospitals.

“The amended order also clarifies that all casinos and horse racing facilities must close until April 10,” the announcement said. The order does not apply to casinos on tribal lands.

Governor’s directive

The governor issued her own directive asking state agencies to suspend some functions and to accelerate remote-work programs to minimize public health risks.

“We’re asking every state employee to continue serving the public. Some can do that best by coming to the office and delivering indispensable services – and some can do that best by working from home and protecting the public health,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are emphasizing social distancing with minimal disruption to services – and that’s what we recommend for all.”

The ramifications of the directive include closure, beginning Monday, of museums, historic sites, parks and cultural institutions. Government offices that provide direct services will begin limiting staff and shifting toward a remote-service model. As a result, beginning Monday, customers will have to make appointments to conduct business at the Motor Vehicle Division.

Lujan Grisham has also encouraged local governments to take similar steps to limit opportunities for person-to-person contact.

Albuquerque appears to have heeded that advice, as it announced Sunday that it would continue essential services while maximizing distance between employees.

According to a news release, all employees who can will work remotely, and non-essential employees who cannot do so will be sent home. Essential employees who can work in the field will be asked to do so exclusively. Employees who cannot work because of the new policies will get paid leave.

“While we’re keeping critical services running, we need everyone in Albuquerque to do their part by maximizing social distancing in every way possible, including avoiding mass gatherings and protecting vulnerable populations,” Mayor Tim Keller said in the news release.

The city also decided to keep the Westside Emergency Housing Center open 24 hours a day until further notice. The center has also begun screening and testing people who are using the shelter.

As providers at the University of New Mexico continue to care for the sick, many employees of the Health Sciences Center will telecommute during an extended three-week spring break.

In a message about changes in work structure that was sent Saturday, the HSC chancellor said employees who are needed on the campus will receive instructions from their supervisor. All employees will continue to be compensated.

Release of nonviolent defendants?

Public defense lawyers are raising concerns about the potential for the virus to spread in jails, which house a disproportionate number of people who are at above-average risk for infection and death.

Chief Public Defender Bennett Baur is urging the state Supreme Court to vacate jury trials for at least 30 days and to vacate all nonessential hearings, or conduct them over the phone.

Baur has also asked for a meeting to discuss the possibility of releasing nonviolent defendants and those serving sentences for nonviolent crimes, as well as suspending arrests and detentions in nonviolent crimes, failure to pay fees and fines, technical probation violations and other similar issues.

“Inmates and detainees do not have the option of social distancing,” Baur said. “They live in close proximity, sharing living space, toilets, sinks, showers, and often have limited access to basic hygiene products.”

Baur said that the measures announced by the Administrative Offices of the Courts last week appeared to be sufficient at the time, but are no longer enough. Even with those restrictions in place, courts will see a constant flow of staff, inmates, lawyers, law enforcement and jurors who would otherwise not come into contact with one another, Baur said.

In a statement Sunday evening, AOC spokesman Barry Massey said the judiciary will continue to monitor developments and will take all necessary steps to safeguard the public. Those steps include limiting the number of people in a courtroom to 25 and conducting some hearings via phone and video.

“State courts have acted quickly to implement measures to minimize public health risks from the coronavirus while remaining open to deliver the justice services guaranteed by our constitution and statutes,” Massey wrote.

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