Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Red-to-green map available on the state’s coronavirus website, cv.nmhealth.org. Click on the banner for medical and scientific reports and then on the “data dashboard” link.
SANTA FE – New Mexico will start relaxing its business restrictions next week – allowing limited outdoor dining, trips to the gym and hair salons and outdoor recreation such as golf – as the state Department of Health continues to try to turn back the COVID-19 surge straining state hospitals.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Friday that her administration will implement a new county-by-county system that consists of three tiers of restrictions, starting Wednesday. Each of the state’s 33 counties will operate in a tier based on the number of new cases per capita and the percentage of tests that come back positive.
Almost the entire state, however, was still in the “red” Friday, meaning all but Los Alamos County would be under the most stringent restrictions, unless there’s improvement by Wednesday.
But even the “Red Level” tier will be less restrictive than what’s in place now.
Counties in the red, for example, will be permitted to allow outdoor restaurant dining at 25% capacity. On-site dining – inside or out – is entirely banned now.
Under the red tier, barbershops, salons and other businesses can also reopen at partial capacity.
The health order now in effect bans in-person operations at hair salons and any other business deemed nonessential.
Lujan Grisham said the red-yellow-green system establishes a responsible path to reopening more of the economy.
“The county-by-county framework enables counties, and the businesses and nonprofits within their borders, to operate with fewer restrictions when they slow the spread of the virus and drive down test positivity rates,” Lujan Grisham said in a written statement.
The two-week shutdown order now in effect will last an extra day, through Tuesday, with the new county-level system going into effect Wednesday. The Department of Health will update its map assessing the risk in each county on Wednesday and every two weeks after that.
Carol Wight, CEO of the New Mexico Restaurant Association, said her organization appreciates the resumption of outdoor dining at 25% capacity.
But “this small opening capacity,” she said, “still makes New Mexico the most locked-down state in the nation.”
Wight said the framework also creates uncertainty, adding to the challenge facing restaurants.
“The reopening by county, depending on the case rate and percent positive, is a nightmare of off-again, on-again, opening, and closing, as shown by other states like California,” she said. “This uncertainty is difficult for restaurants needing consistent policies to reopen and re-hire their employees laid off right before the holidays.
State reports record of 35 virus deaths
The reopening plan comes as New Mexico reported a record-breaking number of COVID-19 deaths Friday – 35 adults, ranging in age from their 40s to their 90s.
It was the most in a day since the pandemic arrived in March. The previous high was 33, reported Sunday.
The statewide death toll now stands at 1,504 people.
New Mexico has averaged 26 deaths a day over the last week, making it the deadliest seven-day stretch of the pandemic so far.
Health officials also reported that 874 coronavirus patients are hospitalized in New Mexico, a 3% decline from the record of 897 set two days ago.
The state reported 2,076 new cases of COVID-19, a little below the average for the week. Case totals have mostly been dropping each day since Nov. 19, when the state had a record 3,664 new infections.
The Department of Health also reported 330 occupied intensive care beds at its seven hub hospitals Thursday – the most during the pandemic so far. It’s well above the baseline capacity of 290, forcing the hospitals to invoke contingency standards to handle the patients.
3-tier system for economic reopening
Every county in the state but Los Alamos is now in the red tier of the new risk system.
To reach yellow – the level in which indoor restaurant dining would be allowed at partial capacity – counties will have to reduce their rate of new cases a day to eight per 100,000 people or their test positivity rate to 5% or less.
The state’s largest counties are well beyond the standards now. Bernalillo County’s test positivity rate, for example, now stands at 18%, and Sandoval County’s is 14%. The rate is 15% in Santa Fe County and 22% in Doña Ana County.
Each county had at least 82 new cases per 100,000 people, or 10 times higher than the target.
Face masks will remain required in public regardless of where each county falls in the red-yellow-green system.
The county-by-county framework will replace a two-week public health order that shut down much of New Mexico’s in-person business activity and instructed residents to stay home if at all possible.
Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, described the two-week order as a “reset” to help the state address out-of-control spread of the virus. She indicated the state would shift to a county-by-county system afterward, though details weren’t announced until Friday.
It marks a substantial shift in strategy. Earlier in the pandemic, Lujan Grisham insisted on statewide restrictions, contending that people – and the virus – often cross county lines, making consistent rules necessary.
Even with looser rules set to start Wednesday, the governor said New Mexicans should stay home as much as possible to limit spread of the disease.
“It’s been a difficult year and an especially difficult past month,” she said. “We must remain as vigilant as ever to contain and beat the virus; we also must look for ways to lessen the burden on our communities wherever possible, while never swerving from our top priority – protecting New Mexicans and saving lives.”
Lujan Grisham and lawmakers authorized a $330 million aid package this week that will send $1,200 in extra cash to unemployed workers and make grants up to $50,000 available to small businesses.