Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – There was good news on tap Thursday for New Mexico’s 90 or so breweries, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said they will be allowed to reopen at limited capacity with the state’s coronavirus transmission rate falling.
However, the Democratic governor expressed concern about climbing COVID-19 case counts in neighboring Texas and Arizona, and said it’s still not safe to fully reopen New Mexico’s economy.
“Until there’s a vaccine, we have to keep managing how we deal with the virus,” she said during a news conference at the state Capitol that was broadcast online.
While new COVID-19 cases continue to pop up and the state’s death toll rose Thursday to 420, top state health officials have said the state passed its peak in new cases and hospitalizations last month.
With the state meeting its virus control criteria, Lujan Grisham’s administration has started to gradually relax some business restrictions.
Dine-in restaurants, gyms and salons were allowed to reopen at limited capacity on June 1, and breweries will now be next in line.
Specifically, Lujan Grisham said an existing public health order will be revised to allow breweries to reopen outdoor and patio seating areas at 50% capacity, starting Friday.
The revised order will then allow breweries to open indoor dining areas at 50% capacity, just like restaurants can currently do, starting Monday.
New Mexico Brewers Guild executive director Leah Black said breweries have been training their staff on COVID-safe practices during the closure that began in mid-March, shortly after the state’s first confirmed cases were announced.
“We are just ecstatic and grateful,” Black said after the governor’s announcement. “We are so happy to have the chance to welcome everyone with open arms.”
Under the “soft” reopening for breweries, bar and counter seating will be prohibited and tables will be required to be positioned at least six feet apart. In addition, no more than six customers will be allowed to sit at a single table.
New Mexico bars will still remain closed for now, as Lujan Grisham said Thursday it’s not yet safe to reopen them since patrons often sit in close proximity and – depending on the individual – tend to remain in a single establishment for longer time periods.
Breweries are more similar in many ways to restaurants, Lujan Grisham added, saying it’s easier to maintain social distancing guidelines in such settings.
Some New Mexico Republicans have criticized Lujan Grisham’s handling of the pandemic and pushed for parts of the state with few cases to be allowed to reopen more quickly.
“Her decisions defy logic as New Mexicans continue to struggle and lose their livelihoods,” state GOP chairman Steve Pearce said Thursday.
However, Lujan Grisham has defended her administration’s approach to the COVID-19 outbreak, and said Thursday that New Mexicans should remain vigilant and wear masks when in public settings.
“Complacency when it feels like everything is alright is what creates more risk,” the governor said.
Death toll rises, testing up
New Mexico’s coronavirus death toll has continued to increase, even as restrictions on business are gradually eased.
Ten additional deaths from COVID-19 were announced Thursday, and six of those who died lived in San Juan County, which has been hit hard by the disease.
Most of those six were elderly individuals and had underlying health conditions, and four of them lived in group-living facilities.
Meanwhile, two individuals also died in both McKinley County and in Doña Ana County.
The governor also announced an additional 121 new confirmed coronavirus cases, and said 189 individuals are hospitalized with COVID-19 symptoms around the state.
But Lujan Grisham also cited several positive trends, including a decrease in the state’s virus transmission rate that had dropped to 0.9 as of earlier this week. That means each individual infected with the virus transmits it to an average of 0.9 other people.
The state’s COVID-19 testing capacity has also increased, as a rolling average of nearly 5,100 tests per day were being conducted as of this week – or slightly more than the state’s established goal of 5,000 tests conducted daily.
“We made tough decisions and it saved lives,” Lujan Grisham said Thursday, referring to business closures, a ban on large public gatherings and other orders that were imposed shortly after the outbreak started.
Low-income areas, higher rates
While COVID-19 cases have declined in many parts of New Mexico, there have been trouble spots.
That includes a fast-spreading outbreak at the Otero County Prison Facility in Chaparral that has infected 222 inmates and killed two, state officials said Thursday.
In response, testing has been ramped up among corrections officers and inmates alike, and infected inmates are being quarantined and isolated in an attempt to slow the virus’ spread, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said.
The COVID-19 outbreak has also disproportionately affected New Mexico’s Native American population, with outbreaks on the Navajo Nation and other tribal lands prompting curfews, road closures and other drastic measures in recent months.
As of Thursday, Native Americans made up 54.9% of the state’s total confirmed cases despite representing just 11% of the overall population.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said data compiled by state epidemiologists show much higher coronavirus infection rates in low-income areas in New Mexico.
Specifically, the state’s lowest-income residents were more than three times likely to test positive than any other income group, according to state and U.S. Census data.
“This really is a matter of our most disadvantaged individuals being most vulnerable,” Scrase said, adding that a lack of running water and other basic necessities had put some New Mexicans at greater risk of contracting the virus.
Journal staff writer Rozanna Martinez contributed to this report.