NM to tighten restrictions amid surge in virus cases

In this file photo from August, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on state efforts to address the COVID-19 pandemic. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Facing an explosion in new virus cases, New Mexico will impose a 10 p.m. closing time on establishments that serve alcohol, prohibit gatherings of more than five people and tighten other restrictions, starting Friday.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced the changes Tuesday, giving businesses and residents alike a few days to prepare for the revised public health order.

“The crisis is not over,” she said in a statement.

The changes come as the state slips out of compliance with a variety of standards set by the Lujan Grisham administration to gauge the state’s effectiveness at combating the COVID-19 pandemic.

The share of tests that come back positive has climbed to 5.3% – more than doubling since late September – and the state is now averaging more than four times as many new infections a day as it did a month ago.

Hospitalizations are also climbing, although deaths haven’t increased correspondingly. The statewide death toll stands at 918 residents, with about three new deaths a day over the past week.

Among the changes scheduled to start Friday:

• Individuals arriving in New Mexico from high-risk states will be required to quarantine for 14 days, even if they have a negative test, eliminating a previous exemption in a separate travel-related order.

High-risk states are those that average at least 80 new virus cases a day per 1 million people or have a 5% positivity rate on tests. About 40 states are on the high-risk list, including all of New Mexico’s neighbors.

• Any food or drink establishment serving alcohol must close at 10 p.m. It’s the first statewide curfew-like restriction in New Mexico.

• Maximum occupancy for hotels will be reduced to 60%, down from 75% in the current rules. Hotels that don’t complete a safety-training program face stricter limits.

• Gatherings of more than five people will be prohibited, a change from the current 10-person limit. The restriction covers public or private gatherings, including organized events and sports, but doesn’t apply to family members living together. Houses of worship aren’t affected because the state has specific regulations for them already.

New approach

The 10 p.m. closing time is a new approach for New Mexico, but at least four other states have a similar regulation, according to the Governor’s Office.

The limit is aimed partly at restaurants and breweries that essentially turn into bars at night – where the virus spreads more easily as people talk in close quarters without masks on and are less cautious as they drink, supporters said.

Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said her organization supports the 10 p.m. closing time as a step to help address the spike in new virus cases. It was more important, she said, for restaurants to continue to be able to operate at partial capacity indoors.

The closing time “is certainly better than having the 25% taken away from us,” Wight said.

David Hargis, co-owner of Tractor Brewing Co., said the latest mandate won’t have a large effect on business, especially because the Nob Hill taproom was the only location with hours after 10 p.m.

“It’s not going to be a really big change for us to go back to those hours,” he said.

Hargis said the Nob Hill taproom had only recently extended its hours beyond 10 p.m. because more people were wanting to stay out later.

“People had been starting to trend a little later recently, very much recently, so it won’t be a very big change for us to sort of pull that 10 o’clock hour back in,” he said. “We’re thankful that they did not reduce the inside seating; that would be very impactful.”

Much like Hargis, Hollow Spirits owner Frank Holloway said he was thankful that no changes were made to limit capacity further.

“I think this is a happy medium to keep us surviving, but at the same time, be able to help with the health of everybody,” he said.

He said that the new curfew will affect his business, because the Downtown distillery has been busy in the hours after 10 p.m. with the bars still being closed, but ultimately he is glad to stay open.

“I am not ecstatic about it, but at the same time it’s a lot better than what could have happened,” he said.

Local support urged

Lujan Grisham spokesman Tripp Stelnicki said the governor would be asking mayors and county officials to support the state’s revised order during discussions this week.

He also said the Lujan Grisham administration remained hopeful that more drastic measures – such as reimposing a ban on indoor restaurant dining – would not be necessary.

“None of us want to see economic rollbacks and more turbulence,” Stelnicki said.

However, he cautioned that more restrictions could be imposed in the coming weeks, depending on whether the recent surge in virus cases and hospitalizations continues.

For now, he said, no changes are planned for New Mexico’s public school system, which has allowed some districts to resume in-person learning in recent weeks under a hybrid model that also includes remote teaching.

State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said the governor’s changes are arbitrary and won’t be effective.

“Again,” Pearce said, “she is desperately looking for answers. Her decisions are piecemeal and haphazard.”

Rapid increases

Virus cases have surged over the past month.

The state reported 355 new infections Tuesday and three more deaths. The most recent victims were in their 60s, 80s and 90s, and each of them had an underlying health problem.

The number of new fatalities each day remains well below New Mexico’s peak in mid-May, when 10 residents a day were dying on average. About three people a day have died over the past week.

New Mexico has averaged about 395 cases a day over the past week – more than four times as many infections as the average a month ago.

The rolling average is higher than it has been at any other point in the pandemic.

The state’s goal is to average just 168 or fewer cases a day – a standard it met for much of August and September.

The share of tests that come back positive is also climbing – to an average of 5.3% in a recent seven-day period, or more than twice the 2.6% average on Sept. 25.

Health officials say increased travel and social gatherings over Labor Day weekend played a role in the initial increase in virus cases.

About 15% of people who test positive and have their case investigated by contact tracers report having visited a restaurant or brewery beforehand – the most common activity reported as a possible source of exposure. Mentioned next most often are travel outside the state and attendance at gatherings, according to state records.

“We have got to turn it around and fast,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement. “So I once again urge, with my whole heart, that New Mexicans in every corner of the state, city leaders, county leaders, business leaders, community leaders all take up the mantle of fighting this invisible enemy, of requiring and encouraging safe behavior, of asking more of ourselves to protect New Mexico.”

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