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State begins to craft economic recovery plan

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With coronavirus infection rates still on the rise across New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday it’s “too soon” to start talking about when the state’s increasingly beleaguered economy might be reopened.

But the governor said during a news briefing that her administration would start crafting a recovery plan within the next week that would, at an unknown date, allow some shuttered businesses to resume operations.

“It’s not as easy as it sounds,” Lujan Grisham said during the briefing, which was streamed live on Facebook from the state Capitol.

“When you open up again, you expose yourself to a virus that is waiting for us,” the governor added.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wears a homemade mask Thursday to highlight the importance of slowing the spread of the coronavirus. (Luis Sánchez Saturno/Santa Fe New Mexican)

“If you open too soon, you’ll see a resurgence in infections,” Lujan Grisham said, while waiting too long to do so could mean a death sentence for some businesses that are already barely hanging on.

The governor’s remarks came as some New Mexicans – including Republican lawmakers – have begun questioning certain Lujan Grisham administration decisions, including extending an in-person business closure order to liquor stores, payday lenders and car dealerships.

In an attempt to slow the spread of coronavirus state officials have also banned large public gatherings and extended statewide public school closures for the rest of the academic year. School districts have been directed to launch distance learning programs while students are at home.

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said business owners throughout New Mexico are struggling with the uncertainty of how long the closures will last and need to know how the state will help.

“They’re fighting for whether or not their business opens up ever again – if those employees have jobs going forward,” Montoya said.

He and other House Republicans have called on Lujan Grisham to convene a special session as soon as possible to address state spending and how to help local businesses.

Lujan Grisham said Thursday that she understands the real crisis facing business owners and said the state is working to help as well as it can, including by launching a loan program to help local companies.

But the governor said her top priority is protecting New Mexicans’ safety.

To that end, she said State Police had already issued 15 cease-and-desist orders to businesses that have remained open in violation of her stay-at-home order.

“Movement at all creates risk of transmitting COVID – it’s as simple as that,” Lujan Grisham said.

She also said far too many New Mexicans are still flouting social distancing directives by doing activities in large groups, and sometimes boasting about it via social media.

“Everyone in this state should be treating the virus like they have it,” the governor said.

989 cases, 17 deaths

The number of New Mexico patients hospitalized with coronavirus symptoms surged to 73 on Thursday – a 23% jump in a single day.

The governor also announced that another person died in the virus outbreak, pushing the state’s death toll to 17.

The daily deaths, she said, are heartbreaking, especially given the social distancing that keeps relatives from being present in the hospital.

“These are families who didn’t get to say goodbye,” Lujan Grisham said.

Of the 73 patients in state hospitals, she said, 22 are on ventilators to help them breathe.

Altogether, the governor said, New Mexico had confirmed 989 cases of COVID-19 as of Thursday, an increase of 124 over the previous day.

“I think, unfortunately, what this demonstrates is we have community spread statewide,” Lujan Grisham said.

The disease has spread rapidly in New Mexico – and much of the rest of the country – during the past month since the first case was reported March 11.

A total of 17 people have died so far from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, nearly all of them elderly state residents with underlying health issues. Lujan Grisham said the most recent death was a resident at a nursing home.

There have also been outbreaks reported on Native American pueblos in Sandoval County – Zia Pueblo and San Felipe Pueblo – and at a large retirement community in Albuquerque.

Lujan Grisham and top state health officials have said the state’s death tally will likely increase in the coming weeks, with a spike in infections now forecast for sometime in late May.

‘We’re early in the curve’

Coronavirus infection rates in New Mexico are highest in the state’s northwest corner, where three counties – San Juan, McKinley and Sandoval – have rates of more than 90 per 100,000 residents. Nine of 33 counties around New Mexico have still not reported a single case.

Statewide, the state’s death rate of 1.9% of all confirmed COVID-19 cases is lower than the national and worldwide averages, said Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase.

But he warned the state’s first coronavirus cases were confirmed March 11 – much later than some other states and countries.

“We’re early in the curve,” Scrase said.

While some models have recently lowered the projected death rates from the disease, Scrase said state-level modeling still shows between 2,110 and 4,567 deaths over the next 12 months, depending on how effective the stay-at-home order and other strategies prove.

Despite the ominous forecasts, the governor and other state officials have said social distancing measures – including the ban on large public gatherings and the closure of businesses – appear to be helping slow the spread.

New Mexico’s “doubling rate,” or the amount of time it takes confirmed statewide cases to double, is now at 4.12 days, Scrase said. During the initial days after the state’s first cases, that rate was closer to every two days.

Meanwhile, the number of occupied intensive care hospital beds has actually decreased in recent days, as elective surgeries have been put on hold.

That development means the state is better positioned to absorb a surge in coronavirus cases, Scrase said.

A ‘new normal’ ahead

The governor also made it clear Thursday the coronavirus outbreak is affecting her on a personal level.

At one point during the news briefing, she showed a framed photo of her mother, Sonja, who lives in an Albuquerque assisted-living home.

Lujan Grisham said she has not seen her mother in six weeks, and said the actions of New Mexicans could determine the fate of her mother and hundreds of other elderly state residents.

The governor, who began the news conference wearing a homemade mask to highlight the importance of slowing the spread of the virus, also suggested she would consider more drastic steps, including local curfews and state-mandated quarantines for certain people, if current orders do not prove sufficient.

She also said New Mexicans may have to get used to a “new normal,” by forgoing handshakes for example, even when the disease subsides.

The state has ramped up its testing capacity and last week expanded testing to certain individuals with no symptoms, including all nursing home residents.

To date, more than 25,000 coronavirus tests have been done and testing should be available in all but a few New Mexico counties in the coming days, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said.

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