SANTA FE – New Mexico’s business restrictions and face-covering mandate are set to remain in place for the next month, as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday it’s still not safe to downshift amid a recent surge in COVID-19 cases.
The governor, who has faced pressure from Republicans and some local officials to relax restrictions, said she wants to see the state’s infection rate and positive test rate go down before further reopening the state’s economy.
“We’re not there yet – the cases are still too high,” Lujan Grisham said during a news conference at the Roundhouse that was broadcast online.
With the Lujan Grisham administration’s previous public health order expiring Thursday, Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel issued a new order that keeps restrictions largely in place through Aug. 28.
The governor also said there would be several changes to a mandatory 14-day quarantine for those entering New Mexico from out of state, such as exempting those who travel out of state for medical treatments.
The travel quarantine has already impacted professional sports teams’ plans, but Lujan Grisham said it’s necessary to ensure that a huge number of out-of-state tourists don’t travel to New Mexico.
While New Mexico has not seen the explosion of cases as has neighboring Arizona, the state’s seven-day rolling average of new cases has nearly doubled since one month ago – there were an average of 319 cases as of Thursday, compared to 187 cases on June 30.
But there are some positive signs as hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have remained below peak levels, and case levels are showing signs of dropping in some parts of New Mexico, including the Albuquerque metro area.
Despite the progress, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said it’s too early for the state to declare victory.
“We’re still really walking that tightrope,” Scrase said. “We can’t really keep reopening until we get the case count down.”
However, one top-ranking Republican lawmaker on Thursday accused the governor of ignoring the concerns of many New Mexicans.
“We look to our state leaders for hope and guidance, yet this administration has made it clear that national politics and party standing is more important than you or me as New Mexicans,” said House GOP floor leader James Townsend of Artesia.
Lujan Grisham has dismissed such criticism as misguided. She said Thursday she recognizes the impact the pandemic has had on businesses, citing up to $600 million the state has made available in loans or grants for businesses struggling to stay afloat.
She also said she hopes to be able to go to a movie theater by the end of this year if the pandemic subsides.
During Thursday’s news conference, Lujan Grisham said testing had confirmed 255 new COVID-19 cases – the state’s lowest single-day figure in more than a week.
However, the governor said it’s too soon to say whether the downward trend will hold.
“We’re still significantly higher than we were for the month of June, and that’s concerning,” the governor said.
Meanwhile, Lujan Grisham also announced three additional deaths due to COVID-19 complications, bringing the state’s death toll from the disease to 635 since mid-March.
Two of those deaths were individuals in their 70s from McKinley County, which has been hit hard by COVID-19. The third death was a woman in her 80s from San Juan County.
Virus outbreaks at detention centers in Cibola and Otero counties have contributed to the surge in new cases, and the governor on Thursday renewed her criticism of the federal government for its handling of immigration detainees during the pandemic.
But she also said her administration was poised to update rules for New Mexico’s developmental disability program after parents and guardians expressed frustration at the lack of services during the pandemic.
One change could allow limited family visits to group-living homes, said Lujan Grisham, who mentioned her disabled sister Kimberly, who died at age 21.
Faster contact tracing
In its attempt to control the spread of the virus, the Lujan Grisham administration has hired hundreds of contact tracers to warn New Mexicans who may have been exposed to COVID-19.
Scrase said Thursday that the state’s efforts have led to the median time for the state to contact and recommend isolation for a person who has tested positive for the virus to be cut by more than half in recent days – from a median of 95 hours to a median of 32 hours.
He also said cellphone data tracked by a local lab shows New Mexicans have been traveling fewer miles on average in recent weeks than they were a month ago.
“Staying home has the greatest impact on case counts – in addition to wearing a mask,” Scrase said.
But Lujan Grisham’s face mask mandate in public settings has generated ample pushback.
Specifically, some law enforcement agencies have flouted the mandate, saying they will not enforce the requirement by issuing fines.
That prompted the governor to chastise such law enforcement officials, and she suggested Thursday she might deploy state troops to ensure mask-wearing by sheriffs’ deputies and local police officers in courtroom settings.
“If we need to send State Police to the courthouses, then we’ll do that,” Lujan Grisham said. “We need people to do their jobs.”
As in other states, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted New Mexico’s economy, with the state’s unemployment rate at 8.3% as of last month – up from 4.9% a year earlier.
Lujan Grisham said Thursday she was “gravely concerned” that New Mexicans would face a drop in jobless benefits, as an extra $600 per week in benefits included under a federal coronavirus relief bill is set to expire Friday.
Her administration started to gradually relax some business restrictions last month, allowing dine-in restaurants, gyms and salons to reopen at limited capacity on June 1.
However, a subsequent infection rate increase prompted the governor to reimpose some of those restrictions, including the ban on indoor restaurant dining.
Several lawsuits have been filed targeting Lujan Grisham’s emergency powers during the pandemic, including one case filed by the New Mexico Restaurant Association and several eateries around the state.
But the governor’s authority to impose restrictions has been generally upheld so far, with a federal judge ruling in one recent high-profile case that a requirement that houses of worship operate at 25% maximum capacity was legal and did not violate religious freedoms.