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Enforcing the mask mandate

Katie and Jeff Ferguson, from Colorado Springs, walk through the Santa Fe Rail Yard wearing masks. Santa Fe Police have issued warnings and citations to people who don’t wear them. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

During the month of February, the Santa Fe Police Department launched the “For your Health and Safety” operation to help ramp up public health order compliance in the city.

Officers focused on enforcing public health orders, including wearing masks in public, social distancing and business capacity limits. The operation resulted in seven warnings for mask violations, according to records obtained through a public records request.

The department didn’t issue any citations or warnings for mask violations in January, and only one in December, based on a Journal review of police records.

And now, Santa Fe County has reached the least restrictive turquoise level of the governor’s color-coded reopening plan, just as the tourist season begins to draw more people into town. Police say they’ll continue to enforce the public health orders to help keep Santa Fe at turquoise.

“Generally speaking, a written warning is sufficient to obtain voluntary compliance – which is the overall goal,” Capt. Matthew Champlin said via email. “If someone were to refuse to put on a face covering, a citation would be issued summonsing the violator into court.”

Mostly compliant

So far this month, the police reported 14 mask violations. Last July, police reported 122 mask violations at the height of the pandemic, Champlin said. But not all the violations resulted in tickets.

During the operation, officers said most problem areas of town were in retail locations where there’s a large public presence. Most citations and warnings occurred in the downtown area around the Plaza and Railyard Park.

Only one person ticketed during the operation had an out-of-state address. Everyone else either had a Santa Fe address, or was local to the area, records show.

“In the beginning of the pandemic, officers had more interactions with people who were against the wearing of the face covering,” Champlin said. “As time has progressed and more information became available, and the recommendations for mask-wearing became more widespread, we have seen most people complying with the law voluntarily, as it is a well-known requirement at this point.”

Champlin said officers didn’t encounter anyone getting hostile over refusing to wear a mask. He said the goal was to get people to voluntarily comply with public health orders.

Records show that, in the first four days of the operation, officers observed several public health order violations. Through 11 days, officers noted a drop in violations that eventually dwindled to zero.

Given the goal of the operation, Champlin said he considers it a success and a positive achievement for the city.

Juan Rios, media coordinator with the Santa Fe County Sheriff’s Office, said deputies are focused on educating people and reminding them to wear masks – not necessarily writing citations or warnings. However, the decision to cite someone is up to the deputy.

Rios said deputies haven’t encountered a lot of people refusing to wear masks, but deputies are more focused on other priorities. He said deputies are addressing mask violations on a case-by-case basis.

Keeping safe

Tourist season isn’t in full swing yet, but it’s coming. And city and county officials want to make sure that Santa Fe remains at the turquoise level, which is accomplished by qualifying for the green level during two consecutive biweekly updates. The green level is designated by no more than eight COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate of 5% or less.

Randy Randall, tourism director for the city of Santa Fe, said it’s important tourists are informed about the mask requirement when they come into town.

“We’re reaching out to all of our industry partners … to remind people if they see them without a mask that, in fact, mask-wearing is part of the requirements that New Mexico has to keep people safe,” Randall said.

They’ll occasionally run into a person who says they’ve been vaccinated and don’t have to wear a mask, he said. It’s important to remind them that not everyone has, and they should continue to wear a mask. Randall said it’s difficult to differentiate between people who have and haven’t been vaccinated.

Once informed of the mask requirement, most people comply voluntarily, Randall said. This year, industry partners haven’t reported difficulty getting people to wear a mask like they did last year, he said.

“We have to work very hard to keep ourselves in turquoise now that we’ve gotten here, and it’s something that I worry a little bit about, that we will lull ourselves into a little bit of a contentment,” he said.

Randall said people need to continue to remain vigilant and obey public health orders to maintain the turquoise rating. But he said he thinks it’s possible to keep the rating, even as the city gets busier.

Santa Fe Councilor Signe Lindell said it’s incumbent on the community to continue to wear masks to uphold the turquoise rating.

Lindell said she met with hotel and merchant groups Thursday morning, and businesses and hotels are letting people know about the COVID-19 health order requirements at the check-in level. She said the turquoise level is important to help the city’s economy, but it’s also worth noting that Santa Fe County has done a good job.

Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna Hansen said the county is thrilled to have made it to turquoise and hopes people will continue to wear masks, because not everyone is vaccinated. She said that, if the community wants to reopen entirely, it’s important to stay safe.

There is a concern that, as the county gets more crowded with tourists, it will see another spike, she said, and people need to continue to be responsible and respectful of their fellow human beings.

She added it’s important to have widespread testing as things opens up, especially for people coming into the state.

“It’s an accomplishment for the citizens of Santa Fe County, and let’s maintain it,” she said.