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NM’s next reopening phase on ‘hold’ for now

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks during a news conference Thursday, urging New Mexicans to wear masks and take other steps to limit the spread of COVID-19. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – A plan to reopen more of New Mexico’s economy is on hold for now as coronavirus cases surge throughout the state.

In a public briefing Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she and state health officials are monitoring a “very concerning” climb in the transmission rate of the disease and waiting to see whether it’s a longer-term trend.

The state’s business restrictions – allowing restaurants and salons, for example, to operate at partial capacity – will remain in place for now. They are set to expire Wednesday, though the governor said she expects to decide before then whether to extend the order or make changes.

Health officials are weighing an array of options, Lujan Grisham said, including whether to reimpose more stringent health orders or step up enforcement of a requirement to wear masks in public, except when eating, drinking or exercising 6 feet away from other people.

Too many New Mexicans, Lujan Grisham said, are gathering in groups and refusing to wear a mask.”We are clearly not there,” the governor said Thursday of managing the disease. “We can do better than this.”

The spread rate of the virus climbed sharply over the last week, according to statistical modeling by state officials and Presbyterian Healthcare Services.

The effective rate of transmission reached 1.12 on Tuesday – meaning each person who’s infected transmits the disease on average to 1.12 other people. The rate was at 0.87 the previous week.

“This is a problem,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said during the remote briefing, broadcast from the Capitol. “We’re not doing as good a job keeping the virus in check. We have to be even more careful.”

Aggregated cellphone data reviewed by the state also shows New Mexicans are traveling more outside the home and that, in some counties, mobility has reached pre-pandemic levels.

Two neighboring states, Arizona and Texas, are now struggling with an explosion of cases – a trend Lujan Grisham said health officials are watching carefully. Both states moved to lift restrictions more quickly than New Mexico, and the prevalence of the disease is particularly high in the areas bordering New Mexico.

Scrase said New Mexico residents, in fact, have brought back COVID-19 after traveling for a baseball tournament in Arizona and graduation parties in Texas. He reminded people that they can carry and spread the disease even before they show symptoms or know they have it.

State health officials are considering whether to reimpose a quarantine order for out-of-state visitors who drive in, Lujan Grisham said, not just for air travelers. Even without a requirement, she suggested people avoid travel into or out of New Mexico and that they self-isolate if they must cross state lines.

“I think there’s a false sense of security now by, frankly, most Americans,” Lujan Grisham said. “The virus has not gone anywhere.”

Tourism concerns

House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, said the governor should have loosened restrictions on wineries and other businesses.

“For months,” he said in a written statement, “you and your staff have chosen winners and losers in New Mexico’s economy. With the Balloon Fiesta being canceled, and our tourism economy essentially shutdown by your orders, our state is going to face a worse than expected financial crush as our tourism economic drivers are shut out of the recovery.”

State Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston said Lujan Grisham’s caution is prudent.

“In times like these we need leaders who are willing to make tough decisions in order to protect the health of our families and our communities,” she said in a statement.

Bernalillo County leads

Lujan Grisham said testing confirmed 207 new cases and five more virus deaths, pushing the statewide death toll to 485 residents. Daily case counts have been growing this week.

State and federal officials are also trying to contain an outbreak at the Otero County prison in southern New Mexico.

Bernalillo County – home to Albuquerque – led the state Thursday with 60 new virus cases. Doña Ana County in southern New Mexico was second, with 46 cases.

Lujan Grisham also reported five deaths – adults ranging in age from their 60s to their 80s. They include one death of a person from Bernalillo County, one from McKinley County and three from San Juan County.

Hybrid model supported

The governor said she realizes that the “hybrid model” of learning planned for this fall will be a burden on teachers and parents.

But the proposal for a mix of in-person and online learning is a sound strategy, state officials said, based on modeling by Los Alamos National Laboratory, which examined a variety of school reopening plans.

The state will watch carefully to see how the partial reopening of schools affects transmission rates, Scrase said. New Mexico may move to more fully reopen the schools, he said, if the disease is under control.

“We believe the hybrid model is the safest model to start school with,” Scrase said. But “we don’t know what’s going to happen with the virus.”

In particular, he said, there’s scientific debate over how much children contribute to the spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus.

Lujan Grisham said people’s willingness to wear masks will be critical to relaxing business restrictions and allowing children to return to school.

She said she doesn’t want to direct authorities to issue citations for people who refuse to wear one. But it’s an option.

Broader compliance with mask wearing and social distancing could allow the state to proceed with loosened restrictions in July, Lujan Grisham said, but it will depend on the state’s data on the spread of the disease.

“We’re on hold,” she said. “I need you to do more.”


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