SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham moved New Mexico closer to a quarantine Wednesday in an attempt to keep the coronavirus under control, closing restaurants and bars to in-person dining while temporarily shutting down theaters, indoor malls, gyms and resort spas.
The dramatic steps, which also include prohibiting public gatherings of 10 or more people and barring shoppers from hoarding supplies, are the latest in an escalating series of actions taken by state leaders in an effort to slow the spread of the virus.
“There are still far too many New Mexicans that are coming into contact with one another,” Lujan Grisham said during a status update Wednesday in the state Capitol.
With testing having ramped up statewide, the number of coronavirus cases in New Mexico reached 28 Wednesday after five additional confirmed cases were announced.
To date, there have been about 1.2 positive cases in New Mexico for every 100 people tested.
Meanwhile, one of the new cases announced Wednesday, that of a Bernalillo County woman in her 40s, is not believed to be travel-related.
State officials said that is significant, because the state’s previous cases of COVID-19 — the disease caused by coronavirus — had been attributed either directly to travel or to contact with people who were infected while traveling.
“That means to us, there is spread in the community,” state Department of Health deputy epidemiologist Chad Smelser said.
In the days after New Mexico’s first case of coronavirus was announced last week, Lujan Grisham’s administration closed public schools for three weeks, directed most state personnel to work from home and ordered a ban on large public gatherings.
That led to the cancellation or postponement of many events, including the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó in northern New Mexico, and prompted many businesses to close temporarily.
An amended emergency order issued by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel takes effect Thursday and expands on the actions already taken by requiring restaurants and bars statewide to offer only takeout and home-delivery services for food.
In addition, grocery stores and other retailers will be directed to limit the sale of certain items — including over-the-counter medication, baby formula, diapers, toilet paper and medical equipment — to no more than three per customer in an attempt to prevent shoppers from hoarding and leaving grocery stores’ shelves bare.
Hotels and other lodging houses will be required to operate at no more than 50% of capacity. That’s partly intended to free hotel rooms for health care workers to stay in if they’re not able to go home and risk infecting family members, Lujan Grisham said.
Those who violate the emergency order could face fines, the loss of business licenses or even jail time, according to the Governor’s Office.
The Democratic governor acknowledged the new restrictions will have big economic consequences — on both individuals and the state — but described them as necessary to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus and avoid a surge of cases that could overwhelm the state’s hospital system.
“We are prepared to do whatever it takes,” Lujan Grisham said.
The amended order is scheduled to remain in effect until April 10 but could be extended, depending on whether the virus can be contained.
“These decisions are hard, they are painful and they are difficult, but we will get through it,” Lujan Grisham said.
The governor’s briefing took place in the House chambers, and in an unusual step, reporters were kept at a distance from the governor, state Cabinet secretaries and one another.
Some countries, including Italy and Spain, have already been locked down in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and a “shelter in place” order with various exceptions has been implemented in San Francisco and several adjacent Bay Area counties.
Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that such action is not yet necessary in New Mexico, but suggested she might consider such a move, which would limit state residents from leaving their houses except in certain limited circumstances.
“These are not orders to shelter in place,” she said. “If these orders are insufficient to keep social distancing from occurring, then we have to think about the next orders.”
The governor also expressed concern about the coronavirus being spread through air travel and said she has urged the mayors of Albuquerque and Santa Fe to raise the issue with the Federal Aviation Administration.
She said that as governor, she doesn’t have authority to halt or limit commercial airline flights to or from New Mexico, but she urged state residents to think twice about traveling if they’re feeling sick.
“People need to think about what they’re doing to their neighbors, their families and travelers from other states,” Lujan Grisham said.
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said the city’s regional airport has had a dramatic decrease in air travel. The nine daily flights in and out of the airport are at about 80% capacity, he said.
“Air traffic is way down, so you know to some extent people are responding,” he said, noting that people moving from one place to another is how the virus spreads. “Like the governor said, people should stay home or get home as fast as they can.”
Webber said city officials might talk to airlines and the FAA about suspending flights in three months, because most airline tickets are sold in advance, but said he was not sure how the city would go about shutting down flights immediately.
Asked whether Albuquerque was willing to make any request of the FAA to limit travel, a spokesman for the city’s Aviation Department said in a statement, “Our team is reviewing and discussing all options with our partners, as well as state and federal officials. Our priority is ensuring that people are safe.”
The spokesman also said additional updates will be provided when they become available.
Despite the recent increase in confirmed cases, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico is still relatively low on the coronavirus “curve” compared with some other states and countries.
But he and other top state health officials urged New Mexicans to stay home as much as possible, and the amended order directs state residents to undertake only outings that are “absolutely necessary” for their health and safety.
That’s partly because Lujan Grisham said each individual who tests positive for coronavirus has been in contact with an estimated 34 other people.
Symptoms of COVID-19 can include a fever, cough and a shortness of breath. State officials have said the disease is most often spread through coughing.
Scrase has also pointed out that only 10% of the people who have the virus require hospitalization, with the elderly and people with chronic illnesses being at most risk.
Journal staff writers Jessica Dyer, Shelby Perea and T.S. Last contributed to this report.