Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
New Mexico took another step Wednesday toward more fully reopening business and resuming daily activities suppressed for months by COVID-19 infection rates and high case counts.
Nearly three months into a red-to-green color-coded risk system that limited capacity in many stores and restaurants, and shut some large entertainment venues, the state has created a turquoise level for the best-performing counties.
Those with sustained low COVID-19 test positivity rates and new case counts per capita will be allowed to increase indoor capacity up to 75% at certain restaurants and businesses.
Meanwhile, the state has lifted other health restrictions so, depending on the county, previously closed bars can reopen at limited capacity, state parks can reopen for all visitors instead of just residents, and gatherings of up to 150 people will be permitted.
Certain businesses closed for months because they require longer periods of close contact among patrons, such as movie theaters, concert venues and professional sports venues, will be permitted to operate in limited capacity both indoors and outdoors in counties in the two lowest risk levels, turquoise and green.
The venues can operate in limited capacity outdoors in yellow counties, but not at all in red counties.
As for sports, a limited number of fans will be allowed to attend professional, college and some prep events.
The announcement of the retooled health restrictions came as the state released its latest map showing the infection rate per capita continuing to keep Bernalillo County, and neighboring Sandoval and Valencia counties, in the yellow category.
Although all three counties fell below the 5% test positivity rate and cases per capita improved, numbers remained too high to qualify for the green level.
The new turquoise category is the least restrictive level, in which all categories of business can operate indoors with minimal occupancy limitations, said a news release from the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
“We have made very solid progress in recent weeks and months,” the governor said in the release, noting that she, like other New Mexicans, is “tired of COVID-19.”
Now, she said, “we can introduce a little more risk … and start to feel a little bit closer to normal – but only if we keep making those safe choices to protect our families and one another.”
Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, in a statement released by the Senate Republican Caucus, said the new category “represents a small step in the right direction. Moving forward, I hope we will take additional steps to allow small-business owners to find stability and consistency, and to eventually reopen at full capacity.”
The caucus sent a letter to the governor earlier this week asking her to rework the restrictions and calculations for the color-coded framework.
Pirtle noted that on Feb. 10, the state downgraded one county from yellow to red, and four others fell short of the yellow level by 0.33 percentage point or less.
Even at the green level, the maximum capacity for most businesses has been capped at 50%.
“We need a framework that offers more hope and progress than 50% closed,” Pirtle stated.
The health metrics for the new turquoise category haven’t changed from the green level, which requires a test positivity rate of 5% or below and no more than eight new cases per 100,000 people.
But counties that operate at the green level for at least four weeks can graduate to the turquoise level, which imposes “significantly fewer restrictions on commercial and day-to-day activities,” according to the Governor’s Office.
The state is among dozens in the country gradually rolling back health restrictions as new virus cases drop and the pace of COVID-19 vaccinations accelerates. In Missouri, Gov. Mike Parson announced a full reopening on June 16, according to a survey by the AARP.
At the same time, the threat of COVID-19 variants could affect reopening plans across the country. New Mexico’s health order creating the turquoise category and reopening some businesses, for example, is to expire in one month.
But the outlook is better than it has been in months.
In New Mexico, the number of new virus cases has plunged about 90% since a seven-day rolling average of 2,076 in mid-November. Last week, the seven-day rolling average reported was 208 new cases, according to the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 public dashboard.
COVID deaths in New Mexico have dropped by about 22% over the past 14 days, while hospitalizations of patients with the virus have declined by 36%, according to The New York Times.
On Wednesday, the state reported 448 new cases statewide and 14 COVID-19-related deaths, with Bernalillo County reporting another 105 new cases. The state’s virus death toll is now 3,658.
Sen. Greg Baca, R-Belen, said in a statement Wednesday that business owners deserve the opportunity to open “without the constant threat of regression.” He urged the governor to continue to rework the reopening framework “in a manner that sends a clearer message that New Mexico is on the road to recovery.”
While the debate over the impact of the state health restrictions on the state’s economy continues, top state health officials have said the county-by-county approach to reopening was enacted partly as an incentive to get counties and their residents to work together to contain the spread of the virus by increased testing, mask wearing and social distancing.
“The framework has helped limit large congregations of people that would have slowed the state’s gradual progress in controlling COVID-19,” the governor’s news release says. “It is designed to match a local area’s decreasing risk level with loosened requirements, and vice versa, and to balance the need to contain the virus with the need for standardized localized ‘openness’ amid this stage of the pandemic.”
Details of the categories and definitions for each of the four risk levels are available at cv.nmhealth.org/redtogreen.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to show that the seven-day rolling average of 208 referenced in this story was reported by the state Department of Health’s COVID-19 public dashboard.