The headlines in the past week’s Albuquerque Journal tell the chilling story:
NM daily virus total blows past record (Oct. 15)
NM’s virus spread ‘on fire’ (Oct. 16)
Virus spike strains NM hospitals (Oct. 18)
No easy answers to New Mexico’s virus spike (Oct. 20)
With COVID-19 cases soaring and hospital capacity threatened, officials are doing the right thing by trying to tighten down some areas while ramping up enforcement at the state and local levels.
With new case numbers hitting 797 Friday, and hospitalizations more than tripling from a month ago to 229, there is little choice. Seventy-seven percent of general beds in N.M. hospitals were occupied by coronavirus and non-coronavirus patients, and 76% of ICU beds were. Modeling by Los Alamos National Laboratory said New Mexico could run short of ICU beds and ventilators within a week or two.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday announced more stringent requirements on restaurants and other businesses, including the possibility of targeted closures, in an updated health order that took effect on Friday.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said the city would launch an enforcement blitz locally, drastically ramping up efforts on mask requirements in public and enforcing capacity limits at restaurants and other businesses and the limit of five people in gatherings in public places such as parks.
The governor understands that reverting to a March-style shutdown of most restaurants and “nonessential” businesses would be devastating. And she noted that “businesses are not spreading the virus. People coming to businesses are spreading the virus.” She called the new steps a “crackdown” and not a “shutdown.”
While she also tightened quarantine restrictions on coming into the state, the biggest impact falls on employers. Restaurants, retail stores, gyms and salons are among businesses that will be required to close for two weeks if they have four instances of infected employees – each triggering state action under the “rapid response” program – within a 14-day period.
It’s understandable that state officials thought they had to do something. But bear in mind that a 14-day shutdown for a business can mean no paycheck for employees. Perhaps no food on the table. While employees may qualify for some unemployment benefits, there is no additional safety net in place as a dysfunctional Washington, D.C., hasn’t been able to reach a deal on a new round of COVID relief. So does a 14-day closure really make sense rather than quarantine, deep cleaning and doubling down on masks and safety shields at cashier stations that have become ubiquitous?
Restaurants that are doing inside dining will be required to keep lists of contact information from diners – some who won’t be happy about it – and require employees to submit to random testing. That’s a harsh requirement considering the invasive nature of the nasal swabs. Remember, New Mexico doesn’t even force suspected drunken drivers to take Breathalyzer tests.
Meanwhile, the Environment Department has begun publishing a COVID-19 watchlist – available at www.env.nm.gov/rapid-response-data/. On Friday there were 75 listed with two or more rapid responses, with the exact number to “be reported soon.” The watchlist is a good thing; the information is public and the public deserves access to it because it’s helpful to know where COVID is in the community.
But it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion these businesses might not be complying with health orders and COVID-safe practices.
First, there is no differentiation between large and small employers. A company with 100 workers has much more potential exposure. And no business or government agency can control what its employees do when they aren’t at work and if they show up and expose others.
It is worth noting that Friday’s watchlist includes only a few restaurants. There were no gyms or hair or nail salons. But there were plenty of government agencies, ranging from the Lea County Offices to the Sandoval County Sheriff’s Department. There were several Walmart Supercenters, a Trader Joe’s in Albuquerque and a Smith’s grocery store in Santa Fe.
The concern is real. Despite tougher restrictions here than in many states – bars still shuttered, schools mostly virtual and college and high school sports on ice – Human Services Secretary David Scrase said New Mexico now has one of the highest spread rates in the country.
That’s on all of us.
At the end of the day, no amount of rules and enforcement will succeed unless the public buys in. We all should. It’s not that hard to stay home when you can, to wear a mask and socially distance in public, to limit interactions to your “quaranteam.” Because what’s really scary with Halloween approaching is the thought of needing a hospital bed when none are available.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.