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City preparing to reopen, but mayor says ‘virus picks the date’

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A man walks a dog past shuttered storefronts in Downtown Albuquerque as the city considers reopening scenarios. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller says he is confident businesses in the city will begin reopening sometime in May but is warning that progress will likely occur in fits and starts and may not always track with the rest of the state.

While his administration is talking to health officials and business leaders about plans to slowly unfurl the economy from its COVID-19-related shutdown, Keller and city Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Rael are making it clear that normalcy is still a long way off.

In a media briefing Thursday, they noted that they have already canceled city-sponsored Summerfest activities through the end of June and are rethinking one of Albuquerque’s largest public events – the Fourth of July celebration at Balloon Fiesta Park – to accommodate social distancing, even floating the idea that attendees will have to watch fireworks from their cars.

“This will be a very different summer for all of us,” Rael said.

New Mexico’s largest city remains subject to statewide stay-at-home orders that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she plans to extend through May 15.

Her administration has closed nonessential businesses, severely restricted activity at hotels and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery orders.

But even when her administration ultimately loosens or lifts restrictions, Keller said he could make different decisions for Albuquerque, including extending closures if he deems it necessary. Since the COVID-19 crisis reached New Mexico, the mayor has routinely distinguished Albuquerque from the rest of the state in terms of its population density and facilities such as the airport, hospitals and shopping malls that drive additional traffic into the city.

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The patio of La Hacienda in Albuquerque’s Old Town sits deserted as state and local officials ponder how to slowly and safely reopen businesses in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

“That doesn’t mean it’s inevitable (to extend restrictions in Albuquerque),” Keller told the Journal. “But we need to prepare for that.”

While Keller is signaling that Albuquerque may need additional time to reopen – or may need some additional precautions in certain areas – City Councilor Brook Bassan has introduced a council resolution calling on the governor to create special protocols so that Albuquerque can open earlier than the rest of the state. The daughter of two local business owners, Bassan said she is witnessing the hardship firsthand and wants the public to know there is a clear plan for reopening.

“We have to make sure we have some kind of hope for our city – to bring a sense of calm back to the city,” she said.

Bassan said she thinks Albuquerque has the resources to reopen businesses sooner, citing the health care sector and the manpower to enforce any accompanying new rules.

But Keller said metropolitan areas have been hit especially hard by COVID-19.

“Albuquerque is in a good place right now, and I want to keep it that way, and that means not jumping the gun,” he said, adding that he is trying to make the best decisions based on the information available.

He said the city is using a variety of sources to make decisions. That includes in-house expertise at the city’s Environmental Health Department, local hospital leaders, state Health Department officials, other mayors from around the state and the country, and reopening guidance like that produced by academics at Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re all just making the best judgments we can; my judgment is clear right now that we’re not ready to reopen,” he said.

When the city does proceed, reopening “right” is key, the mayor said during Thursday’s briefing, describing a staggered approach that may require incremental steps – like lifting some restrictions then waiting a week to see the result before taking additional action. He warned that there will be “relapses,” such as an outbreak at a business that has reopened that forces it to close once again for testing and contact tracing. But Keller said the goal is to avoid that on a large scale so that the overall economy can keep advancing and the health care system maintains capacity.

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A man rides his bike past shuttered store in Albuquerque’s Old Town as the mayor considers how to slowly and safely reopen businesses in the midst of the Covid-19 epidemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Keller has not put a specific date in May when he thinks the local economy can start reopening, noting that the coronavirus growth rate in Bernalillo County – which encompasses Albuquerque – has slowed but has not completely flattened or begun a downward trajectory.

“We do hope it’s weeks … as opposed to months, but the virus picks the date,” he said.

Keller has begun discussions with local business organizations to get their input.

Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Terri Cole said she speaks to the mayor or his staff almost every day and feels her input has been welcomed.

But she said the status quo is unsustainable for many businesses, which would likely accept some new rules – such as monitoring temperatures and limiting occupancy – to get back to work.

“Business understands that this recovery process may be a bit of a dance,” she said in an email to the Journal. “But we think the dance needs to begin as soon as possible and as safely as possible.”

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