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Governor invoking long-dormant law in COVID-19 response

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

A sign along Interstate 25 near Santa Fe flashes Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s health restrictions to motorists Wednesday. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE – When Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a public health emergency on March 11 due to the coronavirus pandemic, she invoked a 2003 law that – until the current outbreak – had never been used since being enacted.

It’s one of several state laws the governor’s administration has used as it tries to slow the spread of COVID-19 in New Mexico, which has infected 403 state residents as of Thursday and been attributed as the cause of seven deaths.

While some New Mexicans have questioned whether the governor is overstepping her authority by ordering nonessential businesses to close and limiting public gatherings, a Lujan Grisham spokesman said this week that the Governor’s Office is confident about the powers it has exercised.

And, in particular, the drafters of the 2003 Public Health Emergency Response Act say the law was crafted for just the type of situation the state now faces.

“It was aimed at exactly this kind of event,” said former state Rep. John Heaton, a Carlsbad Democrat who served in the Legislature for 14 years.

He said he believes the Public Health Emergency Response Act is being used responsibly the Lujan Grisham administration.

“From what I can tell from afar, I think they are being used appropriately,” Heaton told the Journal.

The 2003 law was used by Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel last week, when she barred health care providers and suppliers from selling or distributing medical gloves, masks and other equipment without the state’s approval.

The law also gives the governor’s administration the power to isolate or quarantine individuals – usually through a court order – to prevent or limit the spread of a communicable disease.

Lujan Grisham invoked that provision, at least in part, on Friday when she issued an order requiring air travelers to New Mexico to self-isolate for at least 14 days after landing in an attempt to slow coronavirus infection rates.

In addition, the 2nd Judicial District in Albuquerque has started trying to recruit volunteer attorneys who could represent those facing possible quarantine or isolation orders. Such orders can be contested in court, per the state law.

Meanwhile, the law also authorizes drastic steps that Lujan Grisham has not taken – but could consider in the coming days and weeks.

That includes the state taking control over health care facilities statewide, issuing vaccine orders and even exercising oversight over burials and cremations.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki told the Journal it’s too early to say whether the governor’s administration might invoke other parts of the law, saying the Governor’s Office is taking things “one day at a time for now.”

Former state Sen. Dede Feldman, an Albuquerque Democrat who co-sponsored the 2003 law, said it was enacted after events, including the 2001 anthrax attacks and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted a review of the state’s public health laws.

“It was intended to cover situations like this,” Feldman told the Journal. “We’re lucky to have it.”

Even former Senate Majority Leader Michael Sanchez, who was the only senator to vote against the 2003 bill, credited Lujan Grisham for her response to the coronavirus outbreak.

However, while Sanchez said he didn’t recall specifics of the 2003 debate, he said he was generally wary of bills giving exclusive powers to one branch of government.

“It always has scared me if one person has all the authority, even though I understand why it’s needed in times of emergency,” Sanchez said in an interview.

Feldman also said she supports the aggressive approach Lujan Grisham’s administration has taken to addressing the pandemic, which also includes closing public schools for the rest of the academic year.

“She’s trying to bend the curve and hop on it early – I’m really glad she has the power to do it,” Feldman said.

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