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Gradual reopening on tap, if goals met

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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, speaking from the governor’s residence, thanked New Mexicans and businesses Thursday for volunteer efforts amid the pandemic. (Screenshot from Facebook Live)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A reopening plan released by the state offers a peek at how New Mexico might gradually relax its business closures and stay-at-home instruction throughout the summer.

If disease transmission is low enough, for example, New Mexicans could visit theaters sometime next month, and schools might open in August.

Each step, of course, will depend on New Mexico’s success at limiting the spread of COVID-19 – the respiratory disease that has contributed to the deaths of 172 people in the state.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has already highlighted the early steps of the plan, which she released last week. Starting this month, New Mexico moved into the “preparation” phase, which allowed golf courses to begin limited operations and permitted nonessential retail stores to offer curbside pickup, in most of the state.

And Lujan Grisham suggested restaurants may partly reopen in mid-May.

The spotlight on the preparation phase overshadowed the rest of the plan, which lays out the potential stages of a phased reopening stretching into August.

The preliminary plan was developed by her administration and endorsed by the state’s Economic Recovery Council – an advisory board appointed by the governor.

It calls for the state to reduce the transmission rate of the coronavirus to 1.15, down from about 1.24 by the state’s latest estimate, before starting Phase 1. The rate means each person infected with the virus spreads it to 1.24 other people.

The reopening plan, however, explains what might happen if the state reaches its goals.

“All of us know how much people want to get moving again. We do too,” Christina Campos, a co-chair of the recovery council and an administrator at Guadalupe County Hospital, said in a written statement released Thursday through a state spokesman. “But that’s going to take every single one of us doing their part to keep people safe. We still need to move the needle just to get to phase one.”

Three phases

The state’s criteria for moving forward to each stage depends on the transmission rate of the disease, the level of testing available, the capacity to conduct contact tracing and isolation for people who are infected, and health care resources.

If the state hits its targets, the plan outlines three stages:

• Phase 1, potentially in mid-May: Retailers, nonessential businesses, restaurants and bars, gyms, salons, hotels and churches could open at partial – or full, in some cases – capacity with social distancing and other safe practices required.

The state’s stay-at-home restriction would remain in place for “vulnerable individuals,” such as older adults and those with certain medical conditions.

• Phase 2, potentially in early June: Theaters and casinos could operate in some capacity, with social distancing and safe practices in place.

• Phase 3, early July: Some concerts or spectator sports could be permitted on a modified basis. Gatherings of 100 or more people would still be prohibited. The state would shoot for reopening schools in some form – perhaps with different schedules and procedures – in August.

‘We cannot let up’

Even as state officials consider reopening plans, new cases continue to surface.

New Mexico health officials announced 204 new positive tests for COVID-19 and three additional deaths Thursday, pushing the state’s death toll to 172.

About 70% of the new cases announced Thursday are in San Juan and McKinley counties, in the northwestern part of the state, a consistent hot spot for the virus in New Mexico.

Two of the three who died were men from McKinley County, one in his 50s, the other in his 80s. The third was a man in his 70s from Bernalillo County.

Altogether, the numbers released Thursday show that tests have found 4,493 cases of COVID-19. The Department of Health classifies 1,125 people as having recovered, and 197 patients are now hospitalized.

Lujan Grisham urged people to continue to stay at home and slow the spread of the virus.

“Case numbers continue to rise substantially,” she said on Twitter. “We cannot let up.”

On Thursday, she also livestreamed a video on Facebook calling out and thanking a variety of New Mexicans and businesses that have volunteered and donated to help amid the public health crisis.

Regional flexibility

Republican legislators, the state Republican Party and others have repeatedly assailed Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, for moving too slowly to reopen the economy. They say her public health orders are too heavy-handed and should be relaxed in counties with few confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Some of the harshest criticism has centered on big-box stores that have been allowed to remain open while smaller businesses have not. Walmart, for example, still operates because it sells groceries, and grocery stores are deemed essential businesses.

“This is not only preferential treatment for the big box stores but a violation of the civil rights of our small business owners whose livelihoods are now in free fall,” Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said in a recent letter to U.S. Attorney General William Barr.

The governor, in turn, has said her orders treat businesses fairly based on the type of services they offer, not the store’s size or who owns it.

The reopening plan leaves some flexibility for different regions of the state to go slower than others. It divides New Mexico into five regions – the Albuquerque area and the four geographic corners of the state.

The goal is to move the state forward as a whole, the plan says, but certain regions might be delayed if they don’t meet the criteria to proceed to the next stage.

The northwestern region, for example, wasn’t included in last week’s relaxation of restrictions on golf courses, state parks and some businesses. The region includes San Juan, McKinley and Cibola counties.

The reopening plan maintains the recommendation that people, if they must leave the house, wear a cloth face covering, keep a 6-foot distance from other people and avoid gatherings through all three phases.


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