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SANTA FE – The state’s top health official has warned a southeastern New Mexico county manager about possible legal action for suggesting businesses could reopen in violation of state orders.
The dispute is the latest dust-up over compliance with state edicts aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, which had killed 270 people in New Mexico through Monday.
Lea County Manager Mike Gallagher said last week that businesses in the county will open when business owners decide the timing is right.
In a Monday interview, Gallagher said the county has not told businesses to open, but that they should weigh the economic costs of staying closed with the possible consequences of defying the state’s business restrictions, which can include hefty fines and possible jail time.
“We’re not trying to be defiant, but we’re encouraging people to make their own decisions,” he told the Journal.
In response to Gallagher’s initial remarks, state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel told the county manager in a letter that he should stop interfering with the state’s public health orders, which carry the weight of law.
“Your actions not only directly violate state law and undermine the rule of law, but directly imperil the health and safety of your constituents, educational institutions, nursing home facilities and greatly expose local businesses to severe, yet unnecessary penalties,” Kunkel wrote.
The letter, which Gallagher said was hand-delivered by a State Police officer, also directed the county to provide a reopening plan within five days to the state that includes information about how it plans to handle continued virus testing, reporting and contact tracing.
Gallagher said the Lea County Commission will likely discuss the issue at a meeting this week.
But he said commissioners received no response from state health officials after passing a resolution last month calling on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration to treat all businesses the same.
“We have to weigh what’s best for the residents of our community with the orders from a state official,” Gallagher said.
“Nobody wants to be on the governor’s bad side,” he added.
Lea County, which has an estimated population of about 71,000 residents, has recorded 18 confirmed coronavirus cases – and no deaths – since COVID-19 first hit New Mexico in March.
And about half of those infected in Lea County have recovered, Gallagher said.
Statewide, there have been 6,096 confirmed cases of COVID-19, and the Department of Health has designated 1,796 people as having recovered from the disease.
Meanwhile, disputes over reopening New Mexico’s economy might be intensifying.
However, the state Supreme Court ordered the mayor to comply with the public health orders and stop nonessential businesses from reopening, after Attorney General Hector Balderas’ office filed a petition with the court.
Lujan Grisham’s administration last week issued a revised public health order that allows retailers and houses of worship in most parts of New Mexico to reopen at limited capacity.
But dine-in restaurants, gyms, salons and movie theaters remain closed for now, as Lujan Grisham said it’s not safe yet for them to reopen.
Journal Capitol Bureau reporter Dan McKay contributed to this report.