Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With New Mexico’s coronavirus infection rates showing signs of flattening and the state’s testing capacity increasing, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that state officials can begin gradually easing up on business restrictions.
But the governor said that New Mexicans should not let up on social distancing and that she will soon be extending a statewide stay-at-home order through May 15. The order is now scheduled to expire May 1.
Lujan Grisham also said that a 15-member Economic Recovery Council will provide the Governor’s Office with advice about the slow reopening of the state’s economy and that New Mexico mayors will also be closely involved in the decision-making.
“We will get this right in New Mexico,” she said during a news briefing at the state Capitol that was streamed online.
However, the governor did not say specifically when closed businesses might be allowed to reopen, saying that would depend on case trends and other criteria.
The announcement comes as business groups and some county commissions around New Mexico have been increasingly calling on Lujan Grisham to lay out a plan for reopening stores that were closed to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Some other states have, in recent days, begun announcing plans to gradually lift state-ordered closures if certain criteria are met.
Despite positive trends in many parts of the state, New Mexicans should not expect life to go back to normal, Lujan Grisham said, as large public gatherings will likely remain off-limits for the foreseeable future.
“We’re not got going to be congregating in large groups at parks,” the governor said. “We’re not going to be going to huge concerts.”
“It’s going to be an issue, quite frankly, for the entire country,” Lujan Grisham said.
Wearing masks and gloves in public will likely also be encouraged for months to come, the governor said.
“It is too early to stand outside and feel like we’ve won,” said Lujan Grisham, adding that New Mexico officials would not be pressured by steps taken by other states.
The timeline of New Mexico’s phased reopening plan will depend on when certain criteria are met, the governor said.
And social distancing measures will still have to be maintained to avoid a spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Without the social distancing, it doesn’t matter how much testing you do,” Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said Wednesday.
For now, flower shops and nurseries that had been deemed “nonessential” are allowed to resume curbside pickup and delivery, according to the Governor’s Office.
Other types of businesses could be allowed to reopen in the coming days, though they will remain under strict instructions to limit person-to-person contact.
However, it remains unclear when restaurants will once again be allowed to provide in-person dining – they’re currently limited to takeout – and hospitals around the state will only be allowed to resume elective procedures once certain criteria are met.
Those criteria include a declining number of active COVID-19 cases, adequate protective equipment for health care workers and sufficient testing to contain the virus’ spread.
“We will fight this virus every single day,” Lujan Grisham said. “It will never end until there’s a vaccine and a treatment protocol.”
A big part of the decision to move forward with a slow reopening of New Mexico’s economy is the increase in coronavirus testing capacity.
The state ranks among the best in the nation in testing per capita, and Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said there are 64 testing sites spread across all 33 New Mexico counties.
In addition, the state recently began testing some essential workers – including grocery store employees and construction workers – around the state as a proactive measure.
“We are deliberately testing asymptomatic people to see if there’s silent COVID in our communities that we are not aware of,” Kunkel said Wednesday.
That’s important, the governor said, as reopening New Mexico’s economy could increase the spread of the coronavirus if it’s done too hastily.
But the governor acknowledged the state-ordered business closures have taken a toll on workers and business owners alike, and said some stores may not be able to reopen due to financial reasons.
“That is as painful as anything else that has happened in the state,” Lujan Grisham said.
In response to a question, she said a special legislative session to address New Mexico’s budget situation will likely be called in mid-June.
A state government hiring freeze will likely be enacted, the governor said, though certain exceptions will be made for essential positions.
She also lamented the failure during this year’s 30-day legislative session of a bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana for adult users in New Mexico and taxed its sales.
“I’m really sad about that,” Lujan Grisham said, adding that the legislation could have generated an estimated $100 million in yearly revenue for the state.
The 15-member Economic Recovery Council announced Wednesday by the governor will be made up of representatives from various business sectors – including agriculture, banking, oil and gas, entertainment and hospitality.
The group will be co-chaired by former state Rep. Brian Moore of Clayton, a grocery store owner who previously served in ex-Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration, and Guadalupe Regional Hospital Administrator Christina Campos of Santa Rosa.
When the group meets, it will have plenty of suggestions to consider, as the number of organizations and people offering their opinions on how and when to lift restrictions has been rising in recent days.
The Libertarian-leaning Rio Grande Foundation, for one, has called for Lujan Grisham to allow churches to reopen with social distancing measures, along with golf courses, gun stores and state parks, along with other changes.
And the Clovis/Curry County Chamber of Commerce argued this week that, considering the low number of COVID-19 cases – 10 as of Tuesday – all businesses in the eastern New Mexico county be allowed to reopen with safeguards.
Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said the group has been working with state officials to come up with rules under which restaurants could safely operate at the initial phase and later phase of reopening.
She cited a survey of New Mexico restaurants that showed 47,000 of the 71,700 people employed at New Mexico restaurants have been laid off or furloughed.
Meanwhile, Dr. Nancy Wright, president of the New Mexico Medical Society, wrote in a Journal op-ed Monday that a number of criteria, including sustained evidence of a downward trend in new cases and deaths as well as a robust testing network, be in place before social distancing be relaxed.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller has indicated that New Mexico’s largest city may require a more extended timetable than the rest of the state due to its population density.
“We’re trying to remind folks that Albuquerque is the center of a thousand-square-mile area,” Keller said on Monday, noting that it is the state’s hub for health care, shopping and air travel. “The (COVID-19) effects and likely the rules are going to have to be probably longer and different in Albuquerque.”
Journal staff writers Gabrielle Porter and Jessica Dyer contributed to this report.