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City of ABQ takes new approach to mask enforcement

Mayor Tim Keller

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Better not forget that mask when packing for any upcoming flights.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said Wednesday that the city is upping enforcement of the state’s face covering requirements and can kick people out of the Albuquerque International Sunport — the state’s largest airport — for refusing to wear them. The city also now has the authority to deny people access to city buses or other public properties like the ABQ BioPark Botanic Garden for noncompliance and to restrict out-of-state visitors’ access to city facilities.

Under a newly signed emergency declaration, it can also order businesses to shut down for failing or refusing to enforce the state’s face covering mandate, though Keller said that is likely only to happen after exhausting other avenues.

“We always start nice,” he said when asked if businesses would get warnings before the city forces them to close their doors. “We’re after compliance. But if someone is going to (flout) the law, we’re going to enforce the law.”

An estimated 75 city employees from outside the police department will help carry out the city’s new enforcement strategy, including security guards, Fire Marshal’s Office staff, and Planning and Environmental Health Department inspectors. They are now deputized to issue violation notices to individuals and businesses not complying with the state public health order — which requires face coverings in all public settings, except when eating, drinking and swimming — and to shut down businesses for public health reasons.

They would still, however, need to call police to issue a fine or citation.

“Please, for all of us, just wear the mask,” Albuquerque Fire Marshal Gene Gallegos said, adding that his staff and other city departments involved want to stick to guiding people toward compliance.

“We do not want to get in any kind of altercation,” he said. “We’re here to educate and hope that people comply.”

Confrontations over masks have escalated to violence around the country. Keller said businesses can now blame the public health order when requiring it of customers. He said he hopes that the city’s deployment of non-police enforcers will help keep tension in check.

“That’s why we created this alternative mode of enforcement, which is individuals without weapons who are not police officers who can work on mask enforcement and make sure things don’t (escalate) and also free up officers to fight crime,” he said.

The mayor said the goal was “smart, targeted” approach and that enforcers would not direct much energy into, say, stopping citizens out for neighborhood walks without masks. Areas of concern are indoor and other enclosed spaces, like buses, and places that have high out-of-state traffic, like the airport.

Even before the order, the city’s airport and bus system have seen pretty high compliance with the mask mandate, representatives said.

Sunport spokeswoman Stephanie Kitts said the airport — where passenger traffic is currently about 80% below July 2019 levels — offers free masks to those who do not have them and most people accept and wear them.

Transit Department spokesman Rick De Reyes said the trend is similar on the buses. Even most of those who board without face coverings are willing to take and wear free ones provided by drivers.

But Keller said he knows there are exceptions and the new declaration helps address them.

“One woman with cancer didn’t understand why her (bus) driver couldn’t get another passenger to wear a mask when she used public transportation to get to a doctor’s appointment,” Keller said. “That ambiguity ends today.”

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