Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared that New Mexico is “conquering COVID” and on track to fully reopen in nine weeks – success made possible, she said, by the state’s high vaccination rate.
In the meantime, the Department of Health loosened the mask mandate for outdoor exercise and will relax public health restrictions for much of the state Friday.
“This is cause for incredible celebration,” Lujan Grisham said Wednesday. “I’m extremely proud.”
In an online briefing with public health officials, the Democratic governor said New Mexico expects to have 60% of its adults fully vaccinated by June 30 – a standard that, if met, would allow the state to graduate out of its color-coded map of county-by-county restrictions.
Some regulations – such as an indoor mask requirement – are likely to remain, Lujan Grisham said, but the capacity limits and similar restrictions on businesses would be removed. In some counties, movie theaters have been closed for more than a year.
“In nine weeks, New Mexico, we are open,” Lujan Grisham said.
The briefing comes as New Mexico remains among the leading states in COVID-19 vaccinations. As it stands now, about 42% of the state’s adults are fully vaccinated, meaning they have completed two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
About 58% of adults are partially vaccinated.
“We are conquering COVID,” Lujan Grisham said. “Everyone in this state should be incredibly proud.”
She said she is “incredibly confident” the state will reach the 60% target for full vaccinations by the end of June.
“I think this is clearly doable,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said, but “it’s going to take extra work.”
Health Secretary Tracie Collins said New Mexico plans to enlist the help of physicians and other primary care providers to encourage vaccination.
Vaccines, she said, are a critical step toward protecting yourself and your family. Anyone with concerns should discuss it with their primary care provider, she said, and doctors should reach out to their patients.
Collins and Scrase are doctors themselves.
“As a primary care provider,” Collins said, “I know we are in a unique position to hold intimate, meaningful conversations with our patients about vaccination.”
Relaxed health restrictions are already on the way.
New Mexico is loosening its outdoor mask mandate to match new guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Fully vaccinated residents will no longer have to wear a mask outdoors, unless they’re in a large group. For most of the state, the mask requirement would kick in for gatherings of 20 or more people.
Whether vaccinated or not, people can also forgo masks while walking, biking or running alone or with household members.
Masks will remain required for youth sports. Group athletic activities involve higher risk, state officials said, because of the number of people involved and because vaccines aren’t approved for youngsters under 16.
The mask mandate also stays intact for indoor public settings, with exceptions for eating or drinking. Retail spaces cannot allow an unmasked individual to enter the premises.
A new public health order taking effect Friday will make it easier for counties to advance in the state’s color-coded system of health restrictions.
The changes will have an enormous impact on New Mexico’s map. Thirty of the state’s 33 counties will be either green or turquoise – rather than just 17 under the existing rules.
The number of red or yellow counties would likewise drop from 16 to three.
Bernalillo and Sandoval counties, for example, are set to move from yellow to green Friday under the new statistical criteria, allowing a variety of businesses to operate at a higher capacity.
Restaurants will be able to offer indoor dining at 50% capacity rather than 33%, among other changes. Movie theaters and large entertainment venues could also offer indoor seating at 25% capacity.
New Mexico has four levels of restrictions – red, yellow, green and turquoise. The restrictions within each color will remain the same, but it will be easier to advance to less restrictive levels.
The new statistical targets cover the per-capita rate of new COVID-19 cases, the test positivity rate and the share of residents who are fully vaccinated.
Meeting one of the three criteria puts a county in yellow, and reaching two of three puts a county in green. Turquoise requires staying in green for a month or meeting all three standards.
Scrase, who leads the Human Services Department, said it was time to change the statistical standards because of the increasing number of vaccinations and a plateau in the number of new COVID-19 cases detected each day.
The state is now reporting an average of 199 cases a day, just under the state’s new target of 210 or fewer. The previous goal was 168 cases.
The Department of Health tallied 248 new cases on Wednesday and 12 more deaths related to the disease.
The death toll now stands at 4,051 residents.
Republicans in the state Senate said it was about time the governor revised the color-coded framework.
“We have been shouting for months that the people in our communities are suffering because of these continued illogical and unscientific protocols,” Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, R-Belen, said in a written statement. “While I am thankful that the Governor has finally taken action to remedy some of these issues, I hope it is not too little, too late.”
Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the governor’s policies have already “damaged our great state, infringed on our freedoms and caused despair.”
Lujan Grisham’s news conference was streamed on her Facebook page.
Earlier in the day, she told Albuquerque business leaders that a state face mask mandate for indoor public settings would likely remain in place for some time, even in worksites where all employees have been vaccinated.
“If you’re indoors at all, you should keep wearing masks,” Lujan Grisham said during a remote meeting of the Economic Forum.
The governor – who is up for reelection next year – also said New Mexico was close to reaching herd immunity, when a large portion of the population becomes immune to a disease, due to its high COVID-19 vaccination rates.
But it’s also likely, she said, that the virus will not fully disappear even if herd immunity is achieved. Instead, it might persist, like the common flu.
“I think people are going to feel like a huge weight is lifted pretty soon this summer,” Lujan Grisham said.