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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – With coronavirus cases once again rising across New Mexico, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday that her administration will begin “aggressively” enforcing a face mask mandate in public settings and impose new restrictions on anyone coming into New Mexico from out of state.
The governor’s crackdown, included in revised public health orders that were extended through July 15, comes as New Mexico’s death toll from COVID-19 hit 500 individuals.
“If we don’t flatten the curve again and protect health care workers and New Mexicans, we can’t reopen,” Lujan Grisham told a news conference Wednesday at the Roundhouse that was broadcast online.
She also said there were multiple reasons for New Mexico’s recent increase in COVID-19 cases, including large family gatherings, relaxed business restrictions that took effect last month and widespread “coronavirus fatigue” that has prompted more people to venture out into busy areas.
“I do think people have a real false sense of security,” Lujan Grisham said.
New Mexico’s COVID-19 infection rate had been declining until around June 10, when it began creeping back up.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state’s transmission rate is now up to 1.20, meaning each person who’s infected will on average spread it to 1.20 other people.
The rate was just 0.87 two weeks ago and 1.12 last week.
New Mexicans in their 20s made up the largest group of new cases by age over the past week, while those in their 30s made up the second-highest group, according to state Department of Health data.
Combined, those two age groups made up roughly 47% of New Mexico’s recent new cases, state officials said.
However, the governor said, there’s still time for New Mexico to avoid following in the footsteps of neighboring Texas and Arizona, which have both had an explosion of new cases in recent days.
About one of every six New Mexicans has been tested for COVID-19, Scrase said, and the state’s current positive test result rate is about 3.5%. That’s a much lower rate than in some other states.
But until New Mexico’s coronavirus case growth slows, further reopening of the state’s economy will be on hold, Lujan Grisham said.
She said some business restrictions could be reimposed, including closing dine-in restaurants, if the state’s situation does not improve over the coming week.
New Mexico’s ability to reopen public schools next month could also be in jeopardy, the governor said.
“These are concerning trends,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are going in the wrong direction.”
New Mexico was among the first states to require that face coverings be worn in public settings, when Lujan Grisham revised the emergency public health order to include a face mask mandate in mid-May.
Other states have since followed suit, and there are about 20 states – though none of New Mexico’s neighboring states – with such a requirement in place.
Lujan Grisham initially said she hoped “positive peer pressure” would be used to encourage mask wearing, saying the state did not intend to take a punitive approach to enforcing the mandate.
But she said the state’s recent case trajectory has prompted her to change course.
With infections now surging throughout the state, she said, New Mexicans and out-of-state visitors will now face $100 fines if they don’t wear a mask. Businesses must also require employees and customers to wear masks or face fines.
There are certain exceptions to the face covering requirement, including eating, drinking and exercising.
However, enforcing the face mask mandate could prove problematic.
There have been violent conflicts in other states over mandatory face coverings, and a dispute over mask-wearing reportedly led to a woman being hit in the face in a Las Cruces convenience store last week.
The governor on Wednesday apologized to the woman who had allegedly been struck, and suggested her administration would be contacting the store where the incident occurred.
“I don’t understand how masks became political,” Lujan Grisham said during the news briefing.
In an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, the governor said her administration was also expanding a self-isolation order targeted at those arriving in New Mexico from out of state.
Previously, the state had only required a 14-day quarantine for those arriving in New Mexico by air travel, but that was broadened to include all forms of transportation under the revised order issued Wednesday.
While the governor acknowledged the move would hurt the state’s tourism industry, she described it as necessary given the state’s recent trajectory.
“If we don’t get it back under control,” Lujan Grisham said, “we put our health care system at great jeopardy.”
The governor, who met this week with Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force, said the quarantine order can be enforced by working with hotels.
The state isn’t going to track someone who, say, leaves the airport, she said, but a person who isn’t wearing a mask – and stopped by law enforcement – might also face a penalty for violating quarantine.
The governor also said New Mexicans have become too complacent, citing adult softball leagues and large gatherings at Albuquerque’s Tingley Beach as examples.
And Lujan Grisham urged people to stay at home over the Fourth of July weekend, saying she planned to watch a patriotic movie at her residence.
While infection rates are surging throughout state, New Mexico hospitalizations and deaths due to COVID-19 remain lower than peak levels.
But Scrase said health experts believe there’s a lag period between new cases and hospitalizations, while adding that both hospitalizations and deaths from the disease will likely increase in the coming weeks.
And he pointed out that cases are increasing in all regions of the state, not just in hot spots previously hit hardest.
At one point during Wednesday’s news conference, Scrase also demonstrated how to properly wear a face mask, saying too many individuals he saw during a recent outing were wearing face coverings that either did not cover their noses or were slung under their chins.
When properly worn, masks should fit snugly and cover a person’s nose and mouth, Scrase said.
“We’re in a big surge of cases, and that means the things we did to reopen (the economy) were not sufficiently countered by the measures we took to protect ourselves,” Scrase said.
“We’re certainly not ready to open any further,” he later added. “To do that would be out of the question.”
In all, state health officials reported 130 new cases on Wednesday, including 38 new cases in Bernalillo County.
Of the state’s 12,276 confirmed cases since the pandemic began in mid-March, there are now 5,514 cases designated as having recovered by the Department of Health.
That means a recovery rate of 44.9%, though state officials say the actual number could be even higher than that.
However, the governor warned that a COVID-19 infection can have lasting health consequences, even it doesn’t result in death, especially if the patient ends up on a ventilator.
Furthermore, Lujan Grisham said, people who aren’t at great risk can still carry the disease to people who are, resulting in more fatalities.