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Editorial: Public deserves fair, consistent message on COVID-19 rules

Wearing masks. Curbing travel plans. Canceling family get-togethers. Those are just a few of the changes the state is mandating for New Mexicans amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet getting people to change their behavior is tricky. Ask Ralph Nader, the former presidential candidate and consumer crusader most responsible for the seat belts in our cars.

Nader’s efforts led to a federal requirement in 1968 for all vehicles except buses to have them. But it would take until the mid-1980s for states to start requiring their use and longer still for the majority of the public to actually use them. In a recent edition of Business Insider, Nader is said to believe that people who don’t want to wear masks, like those who refused to wear seatbelts, are obstinate. “It’s just an ornery personality trait by some people. We are a very hard society to change cognitively.”

But change we must.

The governor made that crystal clear in her news conference Thursday. She pointed out she does not have the decade or more it took to convince people to change behaviors to install child safety seats or wear seat belts. But convincing the public to change its behavior leaves little room for inconsistencies that can cause many New Mexicans to be cynical and dig in.

So it doesn’t help that some more-favored constituencies of the governor have seemed to get special treatment while a hammer is used to forge the less-favored. That may be changing.

The latest example: New Mexico United soccer team, whose majority owner is on the governor’s Economic Recovery Council, advising the administration on health restriction guidelines. He says United is not receiving special treatment and was quoted last week as saying the team can practice and travel because it’s a “business.” Players are employees who are allowed to get together to work, just as employees at other job sites are allowed to do.

Technically, this may be correct. And it would boost a lot of New Mexicans’ spirits to be able to follow the popular team as it embarks on its second season – even if fans can’t watch in person. But try justifying that to other teams and fans.

On Thursday Lujan Grisham announced all high school contact sports are banned this fall, including football, wrestling and soccer. And she urged leaders of our colleges to do the same – with the most high-profile, football, leading the way.

As for New Mexico United, if player safety is the true reason behind the emergency order, why should United players have more leeway simply because they are “employees” vs. a Division 1 team? It isn’t as if United is an “essential” business.

On Thursday, Lujan Grisham said she is speaking with United’s leadership but signaled playing and practicing in New Mexico is not an option at this time.

If she sticks to that, she is showing consistency. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if she is banning contact sports for youth and pretty much ensuring a ban at the collegiate level, she will have a tough time explaining allowing United to play.

She made it clear youth club sports should also be banned this fall. Would that be different if a league paid each player a dollar per game? Would they then be employees and exempt?

Other inconsistencies have been brought up by critics, as well. Such as the right to peaceably assemble. When protesters in large numbers took to the streets, the governor said her administration would not interfere with those exercising their First Amendment rights. But when a school district in a county that spans more than 2,882 square miles and has seen just 12 cases of COVID-19 wants to peaceably assemble to graduate 22 seniors – with the promise to socially distance – the hammer comes down and it is threatened with a $1.75 million fine.

The governor sent a different message Thursday regarding protests. She said flat out that people – young or old – should not be gathering for protests. Will she follow that up with citations to those who attend rallies regardless of the cause?

Even seemingly inconsequential events can have a big impact – like buying jewelry. This has been examined ad nauseam, and the governor excused her purchase as being done according to the rules. Perhaps it was. But perhaps the governor learned from that incident that perception is often more powerful than reality. And it was the wrong message to send for businesses that had sought relief with innovative ways to stay safe and still operate but were rejected.

Changing the public’s behavior is a tough slog, but the governor has a much better chance of achieving it with clear rules that apply to everyone consistently.

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.