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Governor reports ‘good news,’ sets target for virus cases

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham speaks Thursday at her weekly Covid-19 news briefing at the Capitol. (Gabriela Campos/The Santa Fe New Mexican)

SANTA FE — Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Thursday the coronavirus pandemic is far from whipped, despite a recent drop in new virus cases statewide that prompted the governor to say New Mexico was “beating all of our neighbors.”

With the state’s COVID-19 test positivity rate having recently dropped well below 3% — the lowest in the southwest region — the governor said some business restrictions could be gradually relaxed in the coming month, though she did not offer any guarantees.

She also announced the state has applied for the $300-a-week federal expansion of unemployment benefits authorized by President Donald Trump in an executive order, though it’s unclear when the state might see those funds.

When it comes to public schools, the governor said her administration would be cautious in deciding whether students can resume in-person learning after Labor Day. Some districts have already announced plans to use a distance learning model even beyond that date.

“We’re going to go really slow because I know, based on the data, we can’t guarantee that (the coronavirus) doesn’t get in,” Lujan Grisham said, referring to virus outbreaks in school settings in Georgia, Indiana, Alabama and several other states.

The governor’s Thursday news conference at the Roundhouse, which was broadcast online, came as New Mexico moves closer to meeting the criteria established by the Lujan Grisham administration to determine when it’s safe to reopen more of the economy.

New Mexico now meets every standard but one — the average number of new virus cases each day.

The state added that requirement earlier this summer but didn’t set a specific numerical target until Thursday — of 168 cases a day.

The state is closing in on that figure: The seven-day rolling average now stands at 174 new cases a day, according to a Journal analysis. The average has plunged 47% over the past two weeks.

Lujan Grisham described the trend as “good news” but said the state’s reopening criteria must be sustained over time.

“We want to keep lowering those cases,” she said.

The governor also announced two more people had died in the virus outbreak — one in Rio Arriba County and one in McKinley County — that has now caused 697 total fatalities in the state since March. But the state’s death rate is down significantly from its mid-May peak.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said every region of the state is showing improvement in reducing cases of COVID-19, though southeastern New Mexico has emerged as an area of concern in recent weeks.

“We’re doing well — great progress,” Scrase said.

But he urged people to continue to wear masks and practice social distancing even if the state reaches its new daily case goal, which he said could happen in the next week or so.

“If people think this is the finish line — it’s not the finish line,” Scrase said.

National attention

Lujan Grisham has received national attention for her handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, but also a fair share of local pushback.

Some New Mexico county sheriffs have refused to enforce the state’s face mask mandate for public settings, prompting criticism from Lujan Grisham and other Democratic officials. Attorney General Hector Balderas has filed court motions seeking to make some local officials — including Lea County Sheriff Corey Helton — comply with the state’s public health orders.

The governor has also faced multiple lawsuits challenging her use of emergency powers under state law.

While the governor has prevailed in such cases so far, the Supreme Court has scheduled a hearing this month on the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s lawsuit targeting the Lujan Grisham administration’s decision to ban indoor restaurant dining.

The first-term Democratic governor acknowledged Thursday that many New Mexicans are tired of coronavirus-related restrictions, saying, “The entire globe is COVID-fatigued.”

In addition to requiring mask use, the current public health order in effect through Aug. 28 prohibits gatherings of more than five people, bans indoor dining at restaurants and limits the operation of retail stores, salons and many other businesses to 25% of capacity.

Meanwhile, Scrase said new research suggests bandannas and neck gaiters aren’t as good at blocking the virus as multi-layer cloth masks.

He also said that roughly 65% to 70% of New Mexicans have been wearing face coverings in public settings, but said he wanted to see that figure rise to around 90% or so.

Census plea

During the news conference, Lujan Grisham also expressed frustration with Congress and the White House for failing to reach a deal on additional relief funding for states.

New Mexico, she said, was the first state to apply to the federal government this week for the expanded $300 in weekly unemployment benefits. While that amount would be only be half of what New Mexicans receiving jobless benefits had been getting under a previous federal provision that recently expired, the governor said it would be better than the alternative.

“I want every New Mexican to get as much as they are entitled to,” Lujan Grisham said.

She also said she had spoken this week with Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, about the possibility of New Mexico obtaining a waiver for a state match that’s required under the president’s order.

State Rep. David Gallegos, R-Eunice, blasted the governor in a statement, arguing she should have offered the state match to help ensure unemployed workers get extra benefits.

The governor also urged New Mexicans to respond to the once-per-decade U.S census, wearing an “I count NM” mask as she began the Thursday briefing.

With less than two months to go until counting ends, New Mexico’s self-response rate has been dismal, ranking behind every state but Alaska so far.

Just 54% of New Mexico households have responded to the census, about 10 percentage points lower than the national average, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

The population count — completed every 10 years — is particularly critical in a state that relies heavily on federal funding. New Mexico could lose $780 million over the next 10 years for each percentage point its population is undercounted, state officials said earlier this year.

The Census helps determine federal funding for Medicaid, highways, education and a host of other services.

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