Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday that New Mexico is ready – after more than a month of closures – to begin relaxing some restrictions on businesses amid the virus outbreak.
But the changes will be gradual, she said, and New Mexicans must continue to limit the spread of the deadly disease by wearing masks outside their homes and maintaining a 6-foot distance from other people.
“I believe, based on the evidence, it’s a safe relaxation,” Lujan Grisham said during a public briefing broadcast online.
The governor said she was extending New Mexico’s stay-at-home instruction – scheduled to expire at the end of the day Thursday – through May 15, urging people to limit their trips to essential outings only.
But she is making significant changes to relax some restrictions on businesses.
Starting Friday, under the new public health orders, retail stores that have been closed can operate through curbside pickup and delivery, if permitted by their licenses. State parks, Lujan Grisham said, may reopen on a modified basis.
Golf courses will be permitted to open for golf only, not dine-in or other services. Gun stores, meanwhile, can start operating by appointment only, and veterinary clinics can resume operations.
“This public health crisis,” Lujan Grisham said, “has also become an economic crisis. There’s great urgency to address both.”
The Thursday announcement came amid escalating calls from Republican lawmakers, business groups and others to ease the restrictions on business that have caused state unemployment claims to skyrocket and led to big revenue declines for cities, counties and the state government.
Lujan Grisham said Thursday that she hopes the throttled-back restrictions are good for New Mexico businesses – and individuals.
But she said a broader reopening of all retailers, dine-in restaurants and places of worship will happen in the coming weeks only if certain criteria are met.
The criteria include the COVID-19 spread rate, the state’s coronavirus testing capacity, the burden on New Mexico’s health care system and contact tracing to determine who had contact with infected individuals.
For now, significant restrictions will remain in place.
Remaining closed are indoor malls, gyms, theaters and casinos. A state-imposed 14-day isolation period for out-of-state travelers arriving by air will also remain in place.
Gatherings of five or more people also are banned.
“If we’re not practicing social distancing, there will be more spread,” Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said during Thursday’s briefing.
The relaxed health orders, Lujan Grisham said, won’t apply to parts of northwestern New Mexico, where the outbreak has been particularly difficult to contain.
Lujan Grisham said New Mexico could move to the next reopening phase in mid-May, but only if residents continue to succeed in slowing the transmission of the virus.
The governor said she hopes the state will be ready to reopen restaurants and bars at 50% capacity in mid-May. Retailers could open at 20% capacity, and gyms, salons, hotels and churches could operate in limited fashion with social distancing.
But moving to that phase, Lujan Grisham said, will be possible only if New Mexicans do the hard work necessary to slow the spread of the virus.
“If you don’t,” Lujan Grisham said, “then sustaining this recovery phase will get very hard to do.”
The relaxed business restrictions were announced even as the coronavirus outbreak continues to move through New Mexico.
The governor announced Thursday that 11 more people had died in the pandemic, pushing the statewide total to 123. Testing, the governor said, also confirmed 198 new cases of the virus for a total of 3,411.
Nine of the 11 deaths were residents of group living facilities, including seven deaths at Life Care Center in Farmington.
While infection rates have decreased in recent weeks in much of New Mexico, the state’s northwestern corner has had skyrocketing case numbers and deaths.
In particular, outbreaks have ignited on the Navajo Nation and on several tribal pueblos that have prompted curfews, restricted access and other measures.
Native Americans make up 52.8% of the state’s total confirmed coronavirus cases, according to Department of Health data. They make up about 11% of the state’s population.
Scrase, the only physician in Lujan Grisham’s Cabinet, said he sees reason for optimism in some data, even though new cases are emerging each day.
The state’s doubling time – how long it takes for the number of virus cases to double – has climbed from 1.9 days to 6.1 days, a “really dramatic improvement,” he said.
The transmission rate – the number of people infected by each person who has the disease – is down to 1.24 people. It was 2.5 earlier in the outbreak, Scrase said.
The state is pushing to get the rate of spread down to 1.15 as part of its criteria for reopening more of New Mexico’s economy.
“We have to move carefully, slowly, step by step,” Scrase said.
The state, he said, will also publish more of its modeling information and projections online.
But Scrase acknowledged that keeping businesses not deemed essential closed indefinitely is not a realistic option.
“The current situation isn’t something we can do for another year” while waiting for a coronavirus vaccine, Scrase said.
One of the state orders issued Thursday, he said, will allow hospitals and surgical clinics to gradually resume operations under state guidelines. They will have to report to the state daily on supplies of protective equipment.
The Republican Party of New Mexico slammed the governor’s new health orders, arguing they didn’t go far enough to reopen businesses.
The GOP said the orders favor big-box stores over local businesses.
New Mexico’s restrictions deem grocery stores essential, for example, so Walmart and similar stores are allowed to remain open if they sell groceries.
“The governor must understand that small businesses can operate safely with the same health precautions as the big-box stores,” state GOP Chairman Steve Pearce said. “She cannot discriminate.”
Lujan Grisham has said her orders are based on the type of the business, not how big it is or who owns it.
The state Democratic Party said Thursday’s reopening steps represent sound decision-making guided by science and expert advice.
“Throughout this pandemic,” Democratic Chairwoman Marg Elliston said, the governor “has put the health and well-being of New Mexicans first, and we’re proud to see her continuing that trend with these new guidelines.”
Meanwhile, the New Mexico state director of the National Rifle Association, which had teamed up with other pro-gun groups to file a lawsuit over the closure of gun shops, called the governor’s revised order allowing them to reopen a “first step toward restoring the self-defense and Second Amendment rights of New Mexicans.”
Adjacent states Colorado and Texas are also moving toward a phased reopening.
In addition, Arizona extended its stay-at-home order through May 15, but with some adjustments that allow for a gradual reopening of some establishments.
Lujan Grisham said New Mexico’s path will be set by local data, not the actions of other states or political pressure. State health officials, she said, will keep an eye on the spread of the disease and change course if needed.
In some ways, Lujan Grisham said, the next phase is even more difficult – because people will have to get used to maintaining strong social distancing strategies even as they spend more time outside their homes.
“This requires discipline,” she said. “We’re all in this together, New Mexico.”