Editor’s note: This post includes Wednesday updates related to COVID-19 and its effects on Albuquerque and the rest of the state.
Court extends fee and fine payment deadlines
In an effort to help New Mexicans who may be financially struggling in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, the state’s Supreme Court has issued an order extending deadlines for payment of fines and fees by 30 days.
The move may also reduce traffic inside courthouses, according to a news release announcing the order Wednesday evening.
The order adds 30 days to the deadline imposed by magistrate, metropolitan, district and municipal courts due for payment between now and May 29. It does not apply to past due fines and fees.
“We understand New Mexicans are facing financial difficulties during this public health emergency and providing more time to pay fines and fees will offer temporary relief,” the state Supreme Court’s Chief Justice Judith K. Nakamura said.
— Katy Barnitz
City faces suit over Monday’s council meeting
A libertarian-leaning advocacy group says Albuquerque’s City Council violated the Open Meetings Act on Monday when it met to update a decades-old emergency powers ordinance.
A lawsuit filed by the Rio Grande Foundation on Tuesday in state District Court in Bernalillo County alleges the council meeting violated the act because it was closed to the public and held without providing proper notice. The lawsuit also claims that the ordinance is unconstitutional as it relates to the regulation of firearms.
Language in the ordinance that has been on the books for years allows the mayor to temporarily stop gun sales in some circumstances, though that provision doesn’t apply to the newly added public health emergency portion.
Because of restrictions on large gatherings in light of the coronavirus, only councilors, city staff and credentialed members of the media were allowed to attend the meeting. Public comment was accepted before the meeting through the internet and other channels.
— Katy Barnitz
Heinrich, Udall vote in favor of coronavirus response package
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich voted in favor of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, legislation that will provide free nation-wide testing for COVID-19 and initial economic relief for the impacts of the pandemic and the associated public health response.
President Donald Trump is expected to sign the bill, which is the second response bill passed by Congress. The two New Mexico Democrats also voted for an $8.3 billion appropriations bill signed by Trump.
“This bill provides free testing for anyone who needs it, emergency unemployment insurance, an expansion of paid sick leave, food security assistance, and major new Medicaid funding in New Mexico,” Udall said. “We are continuing to champion larger efforts – including more significant health and economic assistance to Americans.”
Heinrich said the Senate put partisan politics aside to pass the emergency medical and immediate economic relief measures “Americans are counting on as we confront this unprecedented public health crisis.”
“So many New Mexicans are understandably worried about the well-being of their families and their businesses and uncertain about making ends meet,” the senator said.
State DOT waives fares for park and ride bus service
The state Department of Transportation is eliminating fares on its park and ride bus service in response to the COVID-19 situation.
The free service goes into effect Thursday, March 19, and “will continue for the duration of this public emergency,” the DOT said in a news release.
While using the service, the DOT is asking passengers to maintain social distancing.
“Please allow one empty seat between passengers when and where possible,” the department said.
For users who have already bought a monthly pass for March or April, the DOT said the passes will be honored for 30 days after the end of the public emergency.
For more information on bus cleaning procedures and park and ride coronavirus precautions, click here.
Meals on Wheels changes how it delivers to clients
Since the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered in New Mexico, the Albuquerque home food delivery service has had to change the way it delivers meals to the elderly.
“It’s definitely a different way of doing things,” said Shauna Frost, the executive director of Meals on Wheels Albuquerque. “We’ve never gone through a pandemic before.”
COVID-19 scam warning
Local health care providers say scammers may be using the COVID-19 epidemic to elicit personal information from citizens.
A joint statement from the University of New Mexico Health System, Presbyterian and Lovelace Health System is warning the public about telephone “phishing scams” in which someone impersonates a representative from the COVID-19 hotline or a medical entity.
“The scammer is asking for personal information like social security (numbers) and date of birth, telling callers they must have that information in order to release COVID-19 testing results,” says the health care providers’ statement.
They added that they never ask for social security numbers.
“Any confirmation of a positive COVID-19 swab test will be made by the clinic where you were seen or the New Mexico Department of Health,” they said.
— Jessica Dyer
Governor cautions against taxing COVID-19 testing capacity
Health officials said that New Mexico has a growing capacity to test for the virus, but Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham cautioned against continuing to “burn through (testing equipment) in ways that are not as organized as (state officials) want it to be.”
The governor pointed in her public briefing Wednesday that the 28 confirmed cases in the state represent a small fraction of the 2,354 tests that have been processed in New Mexico.
She said the state is currently working to get FDA-approval to start using machines that can test 700 samples a day or more.
— Ryan Boetel
National Parks entrance fees waived
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt directed the National Park Service to temporarily suspend the collection of all park entrance fees until further notice as a response to the COVID-19 outbrak
“I’ve directed the National Park Service to waive entrance fees at parks that remain open. This small step makes it a little easier for the American public to enjoy the outdoors in our incredible National Parks,” David Bernhard said.
New Mexico is home to two national parks: Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Park, the latter becoming the nation’s newest national park in December.
“Our vast public lands that are overseen by the Department offer special outdoor experiences to recreate, embrace nature and implement some social distancing.” Bernhardt said.
At a majority of park locations where it is currently possible to adhere to public health guidance, outdoor spaces remain open to the public, while many facilities will be closed.
At White Sands National Park, the visitor’s center, the visitor’s center restroom and gift shop are temporarily closed, but the park is open. The elevators at Carlsbad Caverns are closed, but the caverns are still accessible by the Natural Entrance Trail
The Department of the Interior and NPS continue to urge visitors to do their part when visiting a park to follow CDC guidance by maintaining a safe distance between yourself and other groups; washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds; avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth; covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze; and most importantly, staying home if you feel sick.
Gov. orders malls to close, restaurants to go to takeout, delivery only
The state has seen its COVID-19 cases rise to 28, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said during an update on New Mexico’s response Wednesday, including one new case being investigated as a possible instance of “community spread.”
The pandemic led the governor to issue new orders, including:
– Bars, breweries, restaurants will be limited to take out service and home delivery
– Shopping malls, movie theaters, health clubs and spas are directed to close
– Typical office environments should limit operations
– Hotel and motels are to operate at no more than 50% capacity.
— Jessica Dyer & Shelby Perea
Udall backs cash payments to Americans
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall is among lawmakers backing a proposal to provide Americans with direct cash payments as the economic fallout from the novel coronavirus outbreak continues to escalate.
He and 17 other Democratic senators outlined the proposal in a letter to Senate leadership on Wednesday.
The senators propose providing a $2,000 immediate cash payment to every adult, child (or non-child dependent), and recipient of Social Security, Veterans Affairs benefits, and Supplemental Security Income. The proposal calls for additional cash payments should the public health crisis extend, or if the unemployment rate increases. The payments would phase-out for higher-income taxpayers.
This new proposal would build on Senate Democrats’ plan to provide $750 billion in public health emergency response funding and comprehensive economic relief to Americans and businesses during this unprecedented public health and economic crisis.
APS suspending superintendent search due to COVID-19
The search for Albuquerque Public Schools’ next leader is suspended.
The Board of Education announced Wednesday that it would halt the ongoing superintendent search, which began months ago, due to concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic.
— Shelby Perea
Defined Fitness closing, posting workouts, classes online
Defined Fitness has shuttered its gyms out of precaution in the wake of mandates related to the COVID-19 pandemic hitting New Mexico.
Mark Fisher, CEO of Defined Fitness, said they will shut down all Albuquerque and Rio Rancho locations from March 18 through April 1 “at the earliest.”
“It is in times like these that we call upon all your strength to lift us through and carry us to the other side of this. To be clear, there will be another side,” Fisher said. “Today’s closure means we are one step closer to winning the battle with the Coronavirus, and our communities are one step closer to returning as a healthy and thriving community.
Fisher said memberships will remain in place and accounts will be credited for time closed, meanwhile, the gyms will be placing workouts and classes online for members to use.
— Matt Reisen
Keller proclaims emergency in Albuquerque
Using new authority granted Monday, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller on Wednesday declared a public health emergency in the city.
In a video announcement, Keller said the decision “frees up financial resources for our city and flexibility so we can deal with this situation the best way possible.” It allows him to reallocate city resources as necessary to address the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Governor to provide coronavirus update
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham will be holding a noon press conference to provide an update on New Mexico’s response to coronavirus.
The Journal will be streaming the address live.
— Robert Browman
VA: Employee in home isolation after positive test
An employee with the New Mexico VA Health Care System tested presumptive positive for COVID-19 on March 12 and is in home isolation, a VA spokesperson said Wednesday.
Spokeswoman Paula Aragon told the Journal the facility is waiting on confirmation results from the Centers for Disease Control. The people this person has been in contact with have been notified and are currently asymptomatic, and are being monitored as well, Aragon said.
Long lines await those in search of toilet paper
Rosanna Tussey was one of the lucky ones. She was only 30 cars back waiting in a line that snaked clear around the block outside toilet paper manufacturer Roses Southwest Papers Inc., on Second SW, just south of Avenida Cesar Chavez.
“We got here at 5:30 a.m. and they started selling at 8 a.m., so it will be about three hours before we get in. They’re only letting four cars in at a time, but the good thing is you can only buy large boxes, so I won’t have to do this again for along time.”
— Rick Nathanson and Adolphe Pierre-Louis
World virus infections hit 200,000
Coronavirus has now infected more than 200,000 people worldwide and killed more than 8,000.
In releasing the new figures, Johns Hopkins University also said more than 82,000 people have recovered from the virus.
Gun, ammo sales surge in Santa Fe
In Santa Fe, bullets may be as hard to come by as toilet paper and hand sanitizer.
Gun stores in the area have reported a surge in sales after the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, leading to a shortage of some items that rarely go out of stock.
— Kyle Land