SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that New Mexico would proceed with a gradual, data-driven approach to reopening the state’s battered economy, even as Republican Party leaders vowed to file a lawsuit against the governor for her handling of the pandemic.
With many retailers and churches set to partially reopen this weekend after being closed for two months, Lujan Grisham urged New Mexicans to keep following social distancing guidelines so that her administration does not have to reverse course and reimpose closures.
“If you don’t help us as we ease restrictions … we will see cases rise,” the governor said during a news conference Friday at the state Capitol that was broadcast online.
A revised public health order issued Friday that takes effect today and runs through May 31 will allow churches and other houses of worship to operate at 25% capacity – offering more flexibility than the governor had initially announced this week.
Lujan Grisham had first planned to allow only up to 10% capacity at churches this weekend, but she said Friday that she and other health officials wanted to simplify the order.
As of today, retailers and “big box” stores can also operate at 25% of their maximum occupancy, rather than having separate standards for each category.
The new rules apply to most of the state. Just three counties in the northwestern part of the state are exempt from the loosened restrictions.
The order issued Friday also requires that residents wear face coverings when in public spaces, including those casting in-person ballots for the June 2 primary election. Expanded early in-person voting starts today.
Meanwhile, the governor said Friday that 11 more New Mexicans had died in the state’s COVID-19 health crisis, pushing the state’s death toll to 253.
In fact, there were 55 deaths across the state related to the coronavirus during a four-day period that ended Friday – making it the deadliest four-day stretch since New Mexico’s first confirmed case of the virus on March 11.
But even with deaths increasing, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Friday that New Mexico had hit its targeted level of disease transmission – 1.15 – for mid-May. That means each person who’s infected will spread the disease to an average of 1.15 other people.
The transmission rate has been falling throughout most of the state as residents embrace social distancing and stay home.
However, Scrase said some medical resources are reaching capacity. The New Mexico hospitals that are designated as “hubs” for COVID-19 patients now have full intensive care beds, he said, though they are working to expand capacity.
“This is tricky – managing this virus,” Scrase said.
GOP plans lawsuit
Lujan Grisham’s aggressive response to the coronavirus outbreak has drawn national headlines, but many New Mexico Republicans have been increasingly critical of the Democratic governor.
State GOP leaders announced shortly before Lujan Grisham’s news conference on Friday that they were preparing a lawsuit against her actions, though they did not provide details about the litigation.
“The governor’s tactics to impose sanctions on small businesses continue to show her refusal to be equitable in her public health orders,” Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said in a statement, adding that state-ordered closures are destroying businesses around the state.
In response, Lujan Grisham said Friday she was disappointed that Republicans had tried to “politicize” the pandemic but said they had the right to ask the courts to evaluate her actions.
“That right exists and I respect that right, but I believe we will prevail,” the governor said in response to a question about the threatened lawsuit.
Several lawsuits have already been filed, challenging the Lujan Grisham administration’s restrictions on church services, gun shops and more.
But judges have, for the most part, upheld the governor’s actions so far, which Lujan Grisham alluded to Friday, saying, “So far, we have found we’re on very sound legal footing.”
Lujan Grisham also said her administration’s reopening plan calls for moving in phases, spaced at least two or more weeks apart to evaluate the impact on disease transmission.
For now, dine-in restaurants, gyms, salons and movie theaters will remain closed, as the governor said it’s not yet safe for them to reopen.
She said she understands restaurants, in particular, are eager to allow in person dining. That might be possible in early June, Lujan Grisham said.
She also said she would work with lawmakers to try to craft a financial relief package for restaurants and tourism-based business.
‘Please wear mask’
One of the most controversial parts of the revised public health order that takes effect today is the requirement that New Mexicans must wear face coverings when in public unless they are eating, drinking or exercising.
Some county sheriffs have already suggested they will flout the mandate, but Lujan Grisham insisted Friday it is not a political statement.
“I know it’s not popular in a way I wish it was,” the governor said, comparing the resistance to face mask orders to similar sentiments against mandatory car seats, air bags and seatbelts.
Lujan Grisham has acknowledged enforcing the face covering order will be challenging, and said the state will rely on positive peer pressure to enforce it.
She said Friday she does not expect law enforcement officers will issue citations to non-mask wearers, though they could under the revised public health order that carries the force of law.
“I am not going to try to go out and find individuals and cite them – I don’t think that wins the day,” Lujan Grisham said Friday.
Lujan Grisham and top state health officials say face coverings will not stop COVID-19 from spreading, but say it could slow the disease.
Already, roughly 8,000 people have requested face masks from a state website and those masks should be delivered soon, Lujan Grisham said.
“Please wear a mask or any face covering,” she added. “It’s compassionate. It protects others.”
The state Supreme Court also issued an order Friday that anyone entering into New Mexico courthouses or judicial buildings will also be required to wear a face covering, though judges are allowed to remove their face masks during hearings to ensure they’re understood.
Under the new order, courts will provide masks to individuals who do not have them upon entrance.
“State health officials have made it abundantly clear that if each of us wears a mask in public we can help slow the spread of COVID-19 and save lives,” Chief Justice Judith Nakamura said in a statement.
New Mexicans casting their ballots in person at polling places for the June 2 primary election will also be required to a wear mask, Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver said Friday.
Her office has urged eligible voters to vote by mail via absentee ballot and said nearly 130,000 New Mexicans had already submitted absentee ballot applications.
“We want as few people to go to the polls as possible,” Toulouse Oliver said.
New church rules
Governor changes order, allows 25% capacity for houses of worship, all retailers.
11 new deaths
New numbers show virus death toll in New Mexico at 253.
Face coverings will be required for in-person voting, which starts today.