Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Seeking to slow the staggering growth in COVID-19 infections and deaths, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday ordered a two-week lockdown that will reimpose broad business closures in New Mexico – restrictions she said she had been hoping to avoid.
The governor’s announcement triggered long lines of shoppers at some grocery stores and prompted criticism from Republican party leaders who said the two-week “reset” would further harm the state’s economy.
But the governor said the public health order is necessary to save lives and relieve pressure on New Mexico’s health-care system.
Hospitals are already reaching their capacity to care for coronavirus patients requiring intensive care, according to state figures. The number of people hospitalized with virus-related concerns in New Mexico has more than tripled – from 125 to 455 – over the last month.
“We are at the breaking point, quite frankly,” Lujan Grisham said.
Starting Monday, new restrictions will ban dining at restaurants – though eateries can stay open for takeout – and force the closure of salons, gyms and other “nonessential” businesses.
The governor added that she expects to call a special session of the Legislature – the second of the pandemic – as soon as she can to approve new aid to businesses and families.
Lujan Grisham described the new public health order as a two-week “reset,” after which some restrictions may be relaxed county by county if they hit certain statistical targets. The new restrictions are similar to what was imposed in April, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic reached New Mexico.
The latest order instructs New Mexicans to stay home for the rest of the month, except for essential outings. Gatherings of more than five people remain prohibited, unless they live together, and masks are required in public settings.
The restrictions are set to last beyond Thanksgiving.
Lujan Grisham urged people to stay home on the holiday and instead celebrate over the phone or through a web-conferencing program.
“It is not worth the risk,” she said of in-person gatherings.
But the Democratic governor acknowledged the difficulty of enforcing the restrictions, especially when it comes to private gatherings, saying some law enforcement agencies have balked at enforcing her administration’s public health orders.
“Right now the stove is on fire, and I want everyone to get a fire extinguisher,” Lujan Grisham said.
The new order will allow businesses classified as essential – such as grocery stores, child care centers and pharmacies – to remain open, though they are directed to reduce their in-person workforce to the extent possible.
Big-box retailers will be limited to 25% of maximum occupancy or 75 customers, whichever is smaller. Churches and other houses of worship face a similar attendance restriction.
Business not considered essential – such as salons, gyms and barbershops – are generally required to cease in-person activities.
In the hours after the changes were announced Friday, big box stores like Costco were flooded with patrons trying to stock up on supplies.
At the Costco on Albuquerque’s West Side, shoppers pushing carts of food and other essential items were mixed in with those pushing carts that contained only cases of bottled water.
“People might be more worried now that they know that it’s getting worse,” shopper Alyssa Johnston said.
Johnston, a health care worker, said she needs diapers for her 16-month-old son and hopes people won’t hoard them as they did during an earlier shutdown.
State officials said they hope the new lockdown is temporary. They are preparing to allow counties to permit more in-person business activity after Nov. 30, if they hit certain benchmarks on COVID-19 infections.
It’s a reversal from the Lujan Grisham administration’s earlier approach, when she sought to keep restrictions consistent throughout most of the state.
Business leaders said they weren’t entirely surprised by the temporary lockdown.
“We were definitely expecting a pull-back because of the numbers that we were seeing,” said Rob Black, president and CEO of the New Mexico Association of Commerce and Industry.
In some ways, Black said, he thinks the state is better equipped to handle this new shutdown than they were this spring – masks and PPE are in place, hand sanitizer is in use, and more information is available about how COVID-19 is spread. But the federal aid that helped Americans weather the first devastating round of shutdowns – including extra $600 payments to those receiving unemployment – has now run out, he said.
“The impacts to people and businesses are going to be much more severe, I’m afraid, because they don’t have the backstop,” he said.
Black said he doesn’t “see any way around” more layoffs in the coming weeks. The situation is especially dire, he said, set against the backdrop of the approaching holiday season, which many businesses rely on to stay afloat.
Tanya Sanchez, chef and majority owner of Brixens in Downtown Albuquerque, said her team has been expecting another round of restrictions with a fall surge in cases.
“Unfortunately, this is what we prepared for,” Sanchez said Friday. “But I’m not going to say it’s easy.”
The governor’s remote news conference came during a record-breaking week in which the state hit new highs in infections, hospitalizations and deaths. She spoke from the governor’s residence and took questions from reporters remotely.
Lujan Grisham had tried more targeted closures in recent weeks for businesses with repeated outbreaks of COVID-19 in the workplace. But the recent spike in virus cases reignited concerns about overwhelming New Mexico’s health care system in the coming weeks.
Other states have also been dealing with a recent surge in cases and at least one other governor, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, ordered a temporary “freeze” of business activities on Friday.
However, other governors have resisted such drastic action, in part due to concern over the economic impact of a broad shutdown.
New Mexico Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce suggested Lujan Grisham, her Cabinet and government workers give up their paychecks until businesses reopen.
“Gov. Lujan Grisham cannot seem to get a handle on controlling the rising number of COVID-19 cases here,” Pearce said in a written statement. “Her two-week trial crackdown will continue to destroy our fragile economy and cause more pain and distress for New Mexicans.”
22 more deaths
New Mexico reported 22 more coronavirus deaths Friday, making it the deadliest seven-day stretch of the pandemic so far. The statewide death toll now stands at 1,198 residents.
Six of the 22 deaths reported Friday were adults from Bernalillo County. Seven were from Doña Ana County.
They ranged in age from their 40s to their 90s. One was an inmate at the Northwest New Mexico Correctional Center.
Health officials also reported 1,237 new cases of the coronavirus. The state has averaged nearly 1,400 cases a day over the last week, the highest level of the pandemic.
“We are in a crisis no matter how you evaluate it,” Lujan Grisham said.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said hospitals are also feeling the strain as outbreaks hit their employees. In some hospitals, he said, more than half the patients who are hospitalized have COVID-19.
“Hospital beds are quite full,” Scrase said. “We are really in serious trouble in our delivery systems.”
Meanwhile, New Mexico’s court system also announced Friday it was suspending jury trials in all civil and criminal cases through year’s end to try to slow the virus’ spread.
Lujan Grisham said she plans to call the Legislature into special session “as quick as we can” to work on economic and other relief.
A 60-day session is already set to begin Jan. 19 under the state Constitution. The governor suggested lawmakers should find a way to delay some or all of their work for safety reasons.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Friday the special session could be conducted in a single day, with the various economic assistance measures possibly rolled into a single bill.
Specifically, he said, the session would focus on supplementing state unemployment benefits, changing the criteria for a small business loan program and diverting federal funds to bolster state contact tracing and other pandemic-related expenses.
Unlike in the early stages of the pandemic, Egolf said there is no federal stimulus funding for states on the horizon – at least for the rest of this year.
“Unfortunately, because of folks in Washington, D.C., that support is no longer there,” he told the Journal.
Journal staff writers Gabrielle Porter and Anthony Jackson contributed to this report.