Editor’s note: This post includes updates related to COVID-19 and its effects on Albuquerque and the rest of the state.
County lifts bag ban
Bernalillo County has suspended its ban on single-use plastic bags for the next 60 days, officials announced Tuesday.
The ban was passed last summer and took effect in the unincorporated areas of Bernalillo County on Jan. 1.
The city of Albuquerque has also temporarily lifted its plastic bag ban, though its suspension is only set for 30 days.
— Jessica Dyer
Holloman Air Force Base reports COVID-19 case
A person assigned to Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo has tested positive for COVID-19, the medical group at the installation said Tuesday.
The 49th Medical Group said the person is under the care of medical personnel and will remain in self isolation until cleared by health care professionals. Health officials are notifying people who may have come in contact with the individual, the base said in a release.
Colonel Joseph Campo, 49th Wing commander, declared a public health emergency at the base on March 20 and raised the health protection level and increased preventative measures last week.
Holloman is now the fourth military base in New Mexico where either military personnel or civilian employees have tested positive for the coronavirus.
Kirtland Air Force Base announced three positive cases, and Cannon Air Force Base near Clovis and White Sands Missile Range announced one each last week. Fort Bliss in El Paso, which extends into New Mexico, had seven cases as of Monday.
— Scott Turner
Gov. announces 5th virus death, 35 new cases in NM
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Tuesday that a fifth New Mexican — a man in his 40s — died amid the coronavirus outbreak.
The number of confirmed cases in the state had exploded to 315 through Tuesday, she said, and 24 people are hospitalized.
The most recent death marks the youngest person to die in New Mexico from COVID-19, the virus caused by the coronavirus. Four older adults in Bernalillo and Eddy counties — all at least 70 years old — have also died over the last eight days.
The Lujan Grisham administration has instructed New Mexicans to stay home except for absolutely essential outings, such as going to the pharmacy or grocery store.
She said Tuesday that the state’s stay-at-home instruction and closure of non-essential-businesses is likely to extend beyond its current April 10 expiration date.
— Dan McKay, Dan Boyd
Groups want delay of Holtec public comment process
At least 50 groups have signed a letter asking the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to postpone public comment on Holtec International’s proposed nuclear waste storage site in southeast New Mexico until the coronavirus pandemic has ended.
New Mexico’s Congressional delegation sent a similar letter to the NRC last week.
Local groups who signed the letter include the Alliance for Environmental Strategies, Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment, Nuclear Issues Study Group, Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and the Sierra Club.
The organizations ask that the public comment period be extended for a period of 199 days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control declares the end of the national COVID-19 emergency.
The NRC released a draft environmental impact statement for the project on March 10, and recommended issuing Holtec a license. The $230 million facility halfway between Carlsbad and Hobbs would initially store 8,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel in 500 canisters. The full project would cost $2.4 billion and store up to 10,000 canisters.
“NRC has set up some hearings in New Mexico for the public to comment on the Holtec DEIS, but unfortunately these dates come at a time when the whole nation, including New Mexico, is under stress and even dangerous conditions which do not allow for the common folk to even go to the grocery store or a doctor,” said Rose Gardner of the Alliance for Environmental Strategies in Eunice. “NRC must stand down and postpone these hearings, as well as extend the comment period. The most vulnerable In our communities would be put at risk if these hearings were held now.”
The groups also want public meetings to be held in cities along the spent fuel transport route, in addition to cities in New Mexico.
— Theresa Davis
Delegation seeks extension to Chaco comment period
The New Mexico congressional delegation is seeking an extension to the public comment period for the joint Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment and Environmental Impact Statement for the area around Chaco Culture National Historical Park because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The lawmakers sent a letter to Interior Secretary David Bernhard for an extension from the Department of the Interior for at least 120 days.
The comment period for the management plan and impact statement would currently end on May 28. They were originally released in February by the Bureau of Land Management Farmington Field Office, in coordination with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“Due to rapidly evolving situation with COVID-19, it is imperative that the public be given sufficient time to submit comments on the (the management plan) RMPA/EIS (environmental impact statement),” the letter said.
— Scott Turner
Hundreds of small businesses apply for city assistance
More than 500 businesses have already applied for new micro-business grants that Albuquerque officials announced Monday — hundreds more than current funding can sustain.
But city leaders say they continue accepting applications and intend to pursue additional funding to expand the program.
The new “Micro-Business Relief Program” has $500,000 to help businesses with five or fewer employees weather coronavirus-related economic fallout. It provides up to $5,000 in “working capital grants” to individual businesses.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller and the city’s economic development director, Synthia Jaramillo, announced the program Monday morning.
By midday Tuesday, more than 500 had already applied. Assuming each applicant gets $5,000, the city can only help 100.
“The program was oversubscribed within 6 hours of us announcing it,” Keller said.
Each applicant will be evaluated to ensure they meet eligibility requirements, which include size, location inside city limits and at least six months of business operations.
Those who meet the criteria will receive funding based on the order their complete application was received, Economic Development Department spokeswoman Jennifer Esquivel said.
But Esquivel said officials are seeking new cash infusions to help more than is currently possible, having discussions with the city’s foundation, the One Albuquerque Fund, and other government entities.
“There is clearly a huge demand for this now,” Keller said.
Keller said those who want to contribute can donate to the One Albuquerque Fund at https://onealbuquerque.org/
Businesses who want to learn about the program or apply, can visit: https://www.cabq.gov/economicdevelopment/ or call 768-3270.
— Jessica Dyer
Legal Aid still available during COVID-19 outbreak
New Mexico Legal Aid continues to offer free civil legal services to eligible clients, but it is no longer providing walk-in services at any of its 11 offices around the state.
According to a news release, the organization has set up a new temporary intake number, 505-633-6694, and calls will be returned as soon as possible. Applications are also available online.
The nonprofit organization provides help with family law, evictions and foreclosures, consumer rights, access to benefits and other civil issues.
Victims of domestic, dating and sexual violence are encouraged to call the Domestic Violence Helpline at 877-974-3400. Albuquerque residents with landlord-tenant issues can call 505-273-5040 for legal information and a referral.
— Katy Barnitz
Gallup asks permission to waive water loading station fees
Senator George Muñoz, D-Gallup, is asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the New Mexico Department of Health to allow the City of Gallup to draw on its Water Enterprise Fund to waive fees for its water loading stations.
The service is currently paid for by Gallup water users and not city funds. Sen. Munoz and Gallup leaders are asking the situation be declared a COVID-19 related public health emergency so the Water Enterprise Fund can be used.
“I believe it is in the best interest of the health of our state to provide a temporary suspension of fees associated with water services for customers of the City of Gallup’s Water Loading Station facilities,” Muñoz wrote in a letter to the Governor’s office Monday.
Muñoz said temporarily suspending fees would be a proactive decision to “ease economic hardship and ensure people can wash their hands to slow the spread of the virus.”
The move would also prevent customers from visiting another location to get coins for the water loading stations.
— Theresa Davis
Navajo Nation reports 3 more deaths, 20 new cases
The death toll from coronavirus on the Navajo reservation increased to five on Monday as tribal leadership announced three more people have succumbed to the virus and 20 more people have contracted it.
No information was provided about the three people who died, but the 20 new cases represent a 16% jump that brings the total on the reservation to 148.
Vice President Myron Lizer, in a release announcing the new cases, said tribal officials are bracing for more.
“We haven’t nearly reached the peak of the virus — that’s what’s our health care experts are telling us, he wrote. “So, we need to be proactive and do everything we can to prepare for the worse, but pray and hope for the best.”
A nightly curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. began for the entire reservation Monday, and residents have been under an emergency stay-at-home order for more than a week.
The rate of infection on the reservation is more than 3 times that of New Mexicos, and likely more.
That’s because the Navajo Nation, which extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, has a reported population of about 350,000, but not all tribal members live on the reservation. The 148 reported cases bring the rate of infection to about 42 per 100,000 members.
New Mexico has 281 total cases in a reported population of a little more than 2 million — a rate of infection of about 13 per 100,000 residents.
There are 117 cases on the Arizona side of the reservation, while 25 are in New Mexico and six in Utah.
— Robert Browman
‘Stranger Things’ star donates 20,000 meals to The Food Depot in Santa Fe
Communities far and wide continue to come together during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enter Millie Bobby Brown.
The teenage star of Netflix’s “Stranger Things” included Santa Fe in her move to donate to the communities where the Netflix series has filmed.
Production for the fourth season hasn’t begun yet in New Mexico.
On her Instagram account Monday, Brown wrote that while we stay home and do our part to flatten the curve, we must not forget those in need.
“My thoughts are with the great people and crew from Santa Fe, NM whom we didn’t yet get to meet in our company move on Stranger Things,” Brown wrote. “In appreciation of this community, my family and I have donated 20,000 meals to The Food Depot, which will provide meals for those hungry in the Northern New Mexico service area.”
— Adrian Gomez
Social distancing, fewer blood drives reduce donations
While none of the local hospitals is reporting dangerous conditions related to diminished blood supplies, there is a blood shortage in New Mexico, said Drew Sharpless, donor recruitment representative for Vitalant.
“Levels are up and down, but in general we’re having reduced capacity due to social distancing measures, which cause longer wait times for donors, and some donors don’t want to wait.”
There are also “far fewer blood drives out in the community,” though the public response to them has thus far been good, he said.
Vitalant, formerly United Blood Services, operates four blood donor centers around the state as well as five mobile buses and four trucks to set up blood drives in businesses and remote locations. It supplies blood to all of New Mexico’s nearly 55 hospitals, Sharpless said.
— Rick Nathanson
State braces for surge in COVID-19 cases
New Mexico announced two more deaths and 44 additional confirmed cases of the new coronavirus on Monday, while President Donald Trump pledged to get the state a U.S. Army field hospital that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham requested.
The developments, three weeks after the state’s first positive COVID-19 tests, brought the number of confirmed cases in New Mexico to 281 as state leaders braced for a possible surge of additional cases in the coming days.
Meanwhile, the two additional deaths – both elderly Bernalillo County women with underlying health issues – doubled the state’s number of coronavirus fatalities.
— Dan Boyd
NM got aggressive start on testing for virus
New Mexico got off to a quick start testing for COVID-19. Last week, its testing rate lagged behind only states trying to counter serious outbreaks of people with the disease.
Although the virus spread in some parts of the country before large-scale testing was available, New Mexico had a fast start once the first cases in the state were announced on March 11. Public health officials have said that aggressive testing can be beneficial by creating data about where the disease is spreading.
“I think what’s important is to identify individuals who are infected, and once individuals who are infected have been identified, then our public health officials can intervene and help do the contact tracing and help with quarantine,” said Dr. Karissa Culbreath, medical director and infectious disease division chief at TriCore Reference Laboratories.
Tests in New Mexico are processed at both a state laboratory and TriCore, which tests samples collected by providers across the state, including at University of New Mexico Hospital and Presbyterian and Lovelace hospitals.
Both labs have expanded their testing capacity by getting federal approval to use different testing platforms since the virus started spreading.
“The danger in these situations is the people who have the virus who don’t know they have the virus,” Culbreath said. “So as we are doing testing, we are identifying those who are infected, and then they are able to quarantine instead of being out in the public and out in the community.”
— Ryan Boetel