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Health department tells party leaders to follow virus rules

Republican party leaders, candidates and backers pose for a picture during a Women for Trump bus tour stop in Artesia last week. The three-day tour stopped in eight cities around New Mexico. (Courtesy of Republican Party Of New Mexico)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Just days after a Women for Trump bus tour across New Mexico drew large crowds of people with few visible face coverings, a top Department of Health official is warning political party leaders about complying with the state’s public health order.

In a letter sent this week, acting DOH deputy secretary Billy Jimenez said all campaign rallies must abide by a mask mandate and limits on large public gatherings or face possible fines or citations.

“While these gatherings are normal components of any election season, this is not a normal election season and these larger gatherings are strictly prohibited,” Jimenez wrote in his letter, which was sent to top employees in the state Republican and Democratic parties, as well as to certain political committees.

State Republican Party executive director Anissa Tinnin called the letter a violation of equal treatment under the law, saying Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has not issued similar warnings to participants in other large public gatherings, including a recent Black Lives Matter rally in Rio Rancho.

“To single out RPNM is wrong by the Lujan Grisham administration,” Tinnin said in a statement Wednesday. “Again, the governor picks and chooses selected groups – with obvious political implications – that continues to violate the U.S. Constitution’s principle of equal protection.”

Under the state’s current public health order aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19, face masks are required in all public settings – with a few limited exemptions – and public gatherings are limited to no more than 10 people at one time.

Violations of the face covering requirement are subject to $100 fines, though a limited number of such citations have been issued statewide.

This isn’t the first time that state Republicans have bristled at Lujan Grisham’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

GOP leaders have kept up steady criticism of the Democratic governor for her decisions regarding reopening New Mexico’s economy, even while coronavirus case counts were surging this summer.

In addition, Lujan Grisham sparked criticism – and praise – in July by urging political parties to forbid their candidates from door-to-door campaigning.

She called such campaigning, long a staple of candidates’ voter outreach efforts, problematic given the close proximity between voters and candidates during the coronavirus pandemic.

While the Democratic Party has said it’s focused on running largely virtual campaigns, some Republicans around New Mexico have said they have no plans to halt traditional campaign rallies and door-to-door campaigning.

The recent three-day Women for Trump bus tour across New Mexico featured stops in eight cities, including Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Hobbs.

Photos of tour stops showed dozens of supporters, candidates and state GOP leaders holding signs in close proximity, with few if any wearing masks.

The DOH letter sent this week did not directly mention the bus tour, though Jimenez said the agency had become aware that face some parties and candidates have not been following mask and social distancing requirements.

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the Department of Health has also sent warnings to other groups and candidates about public events.

“This (letter) was sent to both parties and campaign committees, so there was no targeting of any particular group,” Stelnicki said. “If one group feels targeted, perhaps it’s because they’ve been more outward with their behaviors that are not always COVID-safe.”


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