State eases some retail restrictions - Albuquerque Journal

State eases some retail restrictions

Customers wait in line to enter Sam’s Club on Albuquerque’s West Side near Cottonwood Mall on Dec. 7. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration has eased capacity restrictions on grocery stores and other large retailers aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration moved Wednesday to ease restrictions that had led to long lines outside grocery stores around New Mexico, even while announcing all 33 of the state’s counties will be in the high-risk red zone through Christmas.

The orders came as New Mexico recorded 43 more coronavirus deaths, pushing its daily average to another record high – 32 fatalities a day over the past week.

However, the number of new COVID-19 cases has declined after spiking last month, and hospitalizations have gone down, which could eventually be followed by a drop in virus-related deaths.

Given that backdrop, state Health Secretary-designate Tracie Collins made modifications to a public health order that were largely aimed at reducing long waiting lines outside grocery stores and other large retailers around New Mexico.

While the revised order, which took effect Wednesday, still limits such businesses to 25% capacity, it lifts a requirement that limited occupancy to 75 people in stores with a maximum capacity of more than 300 people. Big-box retailers such as Hobby Lobby and Best Buy are also covered under the provision, in addition to grocery and hardware stores.

The governor had come under fire for the 75-person limit, with some critics posting photos to social media of long lines of customers waiting to be allowed into stores. A protest was also planned for this weekend in several cities around the state.

“Our priority is ensuring physical distancing in high-traffic areas, like stores that people must frequent to meet essential needs,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement. “With colder weather here, we want to ensure that people aren’t gathering in lines for an unsafe length of time, especially in communities where there are fewer retail options for essential needs.

“We are grateful to the numerous companies and stores across New Mexico that have made every effort to keep their customers, employees and communities safe.”

The mayor of New Mexico’s largest city and retail hub applauded the change, as did the director of a statewide grocers’ association.

In his weekly COVID-19 briefing Wednesday afternoon, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said that he knows store restrictions are important for public health but that it is reasonable to consider a building’s size.

Keller – who said he had been stuck in line outside Target “with a bunch of other Burqueños” in recent weeks – cited the difference the new order will make at places such as Costco. The warehouse chain’s Northeast Albuquerque store can technically allow up to 520 customers at a time under the 25% capacity restriction, almost seven times what it could before the adjusted order.

“I think now, especially with that cold weather, this will just match the capacity to the size of the building,” Keller said. “(It’s) a very helpful and pragmatic change from the state.”

Close to targets

Despite positive COVID-19 trends in many parts of the state, no New Mexico counties met either of the two statistical targets that would allow them to advance under the state’s red-to-green system.

Although some counties came close to meeting one or both of the two criteria – the share of virus tests that come back positive and the number of new cases per capita each day – they all ultimately fell short of the state-imposed thresholds.

That includes San Miguel County, east of Santa Fe County, the only county that was in the less-restrictive yellow level for the past two weeks.

However, the Department of Health said in a release Wednesday that 27 counties have improved over the past two weeks in at least one of the two targets used by the state, while 23 counties had improved in both measures.

The Lujan Grisham administration adopted the red-to-green approach this month, after previously setting business mandates on a statewide level. Among other restrictions, the “red” designation prohibits indoor restaurant dining but allows for limited outdoor dining and takeout.

The first-term Democratic governor has said the new restrictions provide an incentive for local leaders and communities to boost testing and limit the spread of the virus.

The three-tier plan is updated every two weeks, meaning the map-based restrictions released Wednesday will remain in place until Dec. 30.

Several counties could make a jump to the less restrictive yellow level then, as Grant County, the home of Silver City, just missed hitting the test positivity rate threshold on Wednesday’s updated map. San Miguel and Taos counties were also close to hitting the mark.

But most other counties were still well above the target, with Bernalillo County at 14.3%, Santa Fe County at 10.1% and Dona Ana County at 12.9%.

The state’s highest positivity rate was recorded in Lea County, which had a 35.8% test positivity rate during the past two weeks.

Meanwhile, the number of COVID-19 patients in New Mexico hospitals fell to 838 – the smallest number reported so far this month. It’s a 12% drop from the peak of 947 hospitalizations Dec. 3.

Health officials also announced 1,816 new cases of the virus Wednesday. The state has averaged 1,633 cases over the last week – a 39% fall in the average since the week of Thanksgiving.

Dozens of people wait in line at an Albertson’s grocery story in Santa Fe in this Nov. 20 file photo. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration on Wednesday announced it would amend capacity restrictions on grocery stores and other large retailers. (Eddie Moore/Journal)

Other policy changes

Despite steady criticism from state Republicans, Lujan Grisham has argued the business restrictions – among the most stringent in the nation – are necessary in a state with high rates of poverty and underlying health conditions.

In any case, the governor’s response to the pandemic has evolved in recent months.

In addition to the county-based system, state officials also recently modified a policy that required grocery stores and other essential businesses to close if they recorded a certain number of COVID-19 cases among employees within a two-week period.

Under the modified policy, such stores can remain open if they agree to regularly test their workers and work with the state on contact tracing.

That came after community leaders and elected officials from across the state voiced concerns that closing large grocery stores creates problems for residents and still-open businesses – particularly in rural and low-income areas.

After the latest changes were announced Wednesday, Breck Stewart, executive director of the New Mexico Grocers Association, praised the decision to loosen restrictions on grocery stores and other essential businesses.

“I believe it’ll be a positive for the industry and for customers,” Stewart said, adding that the majority of the trade association’s 150 or so members won’t directly benefit from the change.

That’s because the change largely helps bigger grocery stores, which can accommodate more than 75 customers at 25% capacity, Stewart said.

However, he said he expects it to relieve pressure on grocers of all sizes during the holiday season.

“It’s a positive thing, especially for the holidays,” Stewart said.

Journal staff writers Stephen Hamway, Jessica Dyer and Dan McKay contributed to this report.

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