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Editorial: Why switch off the projector at Las Vegas drive-in?

Sometimes, it’s clearly about health and public safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. A good example is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s recent lockdown – actually a lockout – of Gallup where the deadly virus has spread like wildfire among the Native American population in McKinley County.

Having police block roads and highway off-ramps and admit only residents was extreme – and made sense and was done at the request of Gallup officials. The crisis there is severe: as of Wednesday, the county had 2,270 confirmed cases and 97 deaths, approaching one-third of the state’s total. More than 16% of those tested are positive (2,270 of 14,136).

But at other times, what the state has done under the guise of the “health emergency” seems disconnected from rational thought and comes across as simply “do as you’re told.”

Fitting squarely in that category is the Lujan Grisham administration’s move to block the reopening of the Fort Union Drive-In Movie theater in Las Vegas.

As reported by the Las Vegas Daily Optic, city leaders believed they had state support to reopen the theater May 14. But the Governor’s Office called the San Miguel County Emergency Management Department the day before the scheduled reopening to inform them they didn’t have permission to proceed.

“The Governor’s Office said they would treat the drive-in just like any other movie theater,” Las Vegas Mayor Louie Trujillo said. And under the most recent public health order issued on May 13, entertainment venues such as movie theaters don’t yet have the green light to open their doors for people who choose to patronize knowing there will still be some risk even with masks and social distancing.

Of course a drive-in theater – for those who don’t remember – isn’t a typical movie theater. It’s a place where you drive your vehicle and then sit in it while watching a movie. Sort of the ultimate social distancing. Which is exactly what Albuquerque’s Calvary Church did with Easter services – 1,000 parking spaces, two screens and audio. Chief pastoral officer Nate Heitzig says the governor praised the idea as innovative.

Meanwhile, according to Visitlasvegasnm.com, Fort Union is the only drive-in theater still operating in the state of New Mexico and one of fewer than 350 in the United States. It has a capacity of 340 cars and a solo screen. Admission, according to the site, is $20 a carload.

Of course operators would have to be conscious of rules dealing with restrooms and concessions. But to decree a drive-in is in the same category as Century 24 in Albuquerque is disconnected from reality. And when you start disconnecting government mandates from common sense it undermines public confidence in the mandates that do make sense.

Here’s another salient fact: According to the state Department of Health dashboard, San Miguel County as of Wednesday had recorded a total of 14 coronavirus cases and zero deaths. There had been 2,570 tests given in the county, meaning it had a “positivity” percentage of 0.0054.

Given all this, it’s hard to come up with a good reason that people in San Miguel County can’t sit in their vehicles and watch a movie. They can certainly pull into a stall at a Sonic and have a carhop bring them a burger and chocolate shake.

When it comes to COVID-19, San Miguel County and its iconic drive-in is a world apart from McKinley County, yet presents another example of this administration’s refusal to consider geography in its mostly one-size-fits-all directives.

San Miguel County residents will get by without Fort Union until they are allowed to go back, and missing the double feature of “Doolittle” and “Trolls World Tour” won’t do any damage – permanent or otherwise. But to simply decree someone can’t pack the kids in the car and head for an affordable night at the drive-in is an unfortunate example of a heavy-handed government telling people to do as they are told.

In the long run it undercuts the willingness of people to accept the rules in a society where government is by the consent of the governed.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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