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NM issues more restrictive health order to combat virus surge

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In this July 9 photo, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham points to her face mask with the word “governor” and the St. Michael’s High School emblem on it as she begins a public briefing. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tightened New Mexico’s mask mandate, banned indoor dining at restaurants and imposed tougher limits on gyms Monday as part of a new public health order.

The regulations are set to expire July 30, though the Department of Health may revise or extend them.

Lujan Grisham had warned New Mexicans last week that a more stringent health order was on the way, but the scaling back of gym capacity – part of the new order – didn’t come up in her briefing.

Monday’s order limits gyms to 25% capacity, down from 50% earlier.

It’s part of a broader strategy to combat a resurgence of COVID-19, the disease that’s killed 548 in New Mexico since March and hospitalized more than 2,200.

In an online interview with The Washington Post, Lujan Grisham said Monday that quick action is required to keep infections from spinning out of control. The mask requirement, she said, shouldn’t be political.

The virus “does not care whether you’re Republican or Democrat, young or old, whether you’re independent or decline to state,” Lujan Grisham said. “It will attack you indiscriminately.”

The new regulations come as New Mexico and neighboring states endure strong growth in new COVID-19 infections. New Mexico’s daily average case count hit an all-time high last week, and hospitalizations have jumped in recent days, though not near their mid-May peak.

About 172 virus patients were hospitalized in New Mexico on Monday, a 33% increase from a week ago.

The state also reported 264 new coronavirus infections Monday – led by Doña Ana County, in southern New Mexico – and three more deaths.

Gyms adjusting

The owner of Albuquerque’s Liberty Gym said the reduced capacity is unlikely to make a difference at his business.

Doug Gaylor said his facility is rarely crowded enough to approach 50% of its total capacity – something that is true even outside of a pandemic, but even more pronounced now as clients have invested in home fitness equipment, dropped off due to financial hardship or stayed away just to avoid others.

“I consider myself lucky that she kept us open (at all),” Gaylor said of Lujan Grisham’s new order. “I think we dodged a bullet.”

Gaylor’s larger concern is the mask mandate. The state no longer grants an exemption for exercise, so Liberty’s clients must wear a mask even while working out. Because many oppose wearing masks, Gaylor worries about potential conflict when reminding members to cover their faces while inside.

As of midday Monday, however, he said he was “pleasantly surprised” at his customers’ willingness to comply.

Defined Fitness, a New Mexico chain with seven locations, is not sweating the capacity change, according to marketing director Maria Lamar.

That’s mostly because its clubs are large – the biggest among them, the Juan Tabo NE location, has a maximum capacity of 939, meaning that it can still host over 230 members at a time.

Given the gyms’ size and that member visits have been more spread throughout the day than before, Lamar said, the chain has been able to accommodate customer demand despite the state restrictions.

“We have not turned anyone away at our club” for capacity reasons, she said.

New mask order

Lujan Grisham told Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart in an interview Monday that more New Mexicans are adhering to the state’s mandate to wear masks in public settings.

Scientists at a national laboratory, she said, analyzed social media posts, and the share of people wearing masks appears to have jumped from 30% to 55%, closer to the state’s goal of over 80%.

“This will make a huge difference in our state,” Lujan Grisham said.

The state’s new mask order requires the wearing of a mask in all public settings except when eating, drinking or swimming. The order doesn’t define “public setting,” but it directs New Mexicans to wear masks anytime they leave home.

Some law enforcement agencies – including the sheriff’s offices of Bernalillo and Cibola counties – say they aren’t enforcing the mask mandate.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says masks can help slow the spread of COVID-19. The agency recommends wearing them in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household, especially when social distancing is difficult.

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