SANTA FE — With the coronavirus spreading in two of New Mexico’s most populous counties, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday announced the closure of all “non-essential” businesses statewide and delivered a blunt message to state residents.
The message: Stay home and only go out when absolutely necessary.
“If we limit person to person contact, we will be doing everything in our power to slow the spread,” Lujan Grisham said during a Monday news briefing at the state Capitol.
The “stay at home” order is functionally no different than the “shelter in place” orders implemented by the governors of California, New York and several other states, the governor’s aides said.
Starting today, most retail stores, call centers and other businesses will be closed, under an amended public health order issued by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel. The order is in effect through April 10, but could end up being extended.
Hospitals, grocery stores, pharmacies, homeless shelters, construction work, gas stations and hardware stores are among the various workplaces that are deemed essential and can remain open.
“I need you to heed this order,” the governor said. “I need every New Mexican to do their part.”
The new order also expands an existing ban on large public gatherings, directing that such gatherings be limited to no more than five people, even family outings. The limit had previously been set at no more than 100 people, and more recently at no more than 10.
“Everyone in this state has a social contract for responsibility for one another,” Lujan Grisham said. “If you don’t take this serious, then we can’t reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
The order, the latest in a series of escalating steps to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus in New Mexico, came as state health officials announced 18 new confirmed cases on Monday.
The virus, now classified as a global pandemic, has infected at least 83 people and hospitalized nine of them statewide, though only five of those individuals remain in the hospital, the governor said.
With testing having ramped up and New Mexico now able to run roughly 850 coronavirus tests per day, confirmed cases have now been reported in 11 of the state’s 33 counties.
Department of Health Deputy Epidemiologist Chad Smelser said community spread has been detected in both Bernalillo and Santa Fe counties, meaning the disease has been transmitted from individual to individual within those counties.
In other parts of New Mexico, confirmed cases are believed to be travel related — at least so far.
While about 80% of coronavirus cases bring only mild to moderate symptoms of fever, coughing and shortness of breath, about 5% of cases will likely need hospital care over time, the governor said.
For that reason, health officials said the state must slow the rate of infections to ensure patients can get the treatment they need,
“We are worried that it could outpace the health care system in our state,” Smelser said.
To prepare for an increase in cases, Lujan Grisham said she’s pushing for more medical supplies — including protective gloves and masks — to be sent to New Mexcio from a national stockpile.
“This is painful”
The further restrictions imposed by the Lujan Grisham administration’s “stay at home” order will not bar New Mexicans from going for walks outside.
But even families, the governor said, should try to limit themselves to gatherings of five when they go to the grocery store or local parks.
The governor said she hadn’t visited her own elderly mother in nearly a month and did not get to see her daughter on her daughter’s recent birthday.
“This is painful,” Lujan Grisham said, but necessary to save lives.
The additional restrictions are needed, the governor added, because some New Mexicans have not followed previous instructions to limit contact with other people.
She described social distancing as “the only real weapon” New Mexicans have to slow the spread of the coronavirus and protect themselves and their neighbors.
Meanwhile, the governor asserted the amended public health order is enforceable, and urged New Mexicans to report non-compliance via a state hotline.
State agencies have been instructed to ramp up their surveillance of businesses to ensure compliance and businesses that violators could lose their licenses, the Governor’s Office said.
It’s unclear whether law enforcement would issue citations to people who flout the order, but Lujan Grisham said they could issue “harsh reminders” to offenders.
State escalating its efforts
After the first travel-related cases of coronavirus popped up in New Mexico earlier this month, the governor and other state officials moved quickly to shutter schools, ban large gatherings and limit restaurants to take-out and delivery.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged the actions have had big impacts on families, businesses and workers statewide, as unemployment claims have already started to spike.
But the governor said her focus is squarely on New Mexico’s public safety.
“We don’t take these orders lightly,” the governor said during her Monday update. “I have to prevent as many deaths as possible from this unfair, vicious virus.”
The governor also said things will probably get worse in the coming weeks, and called it highly likely that schools will remain closed beyond April 6, when the initial closure was set to expire.
She said state officials were investigating what that would mean for planned graduation ceremonies and testing requirements. Some superintendents have already announced plans for distance learning — for however long the shutdown lasts.
In addition, Lujan Grisham said she has having daily phone calls with the White House, members of the state’s congressional delegation and legislative leaders about the impact of the coronavirus.
She also voiced support for a balanced federal economic relief package, saying such legislation should include both corporate aid and additional benefits for working families.