SANTA FE — Bars and clubs will be allowed to reopen indoor operations in much of New Mexico this week as the state continues to relax its pandemic health restrictions.
Three of the state’s most populous counties — Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana — all moved from the green level to turquoise Wednesday, a change that will allow bars to operate at 33% capacity indoors, not just in outdoor spaces.
Restaurants, breweries and a host of other businesses will also enjoy higher capacity restrictions.
It’s a dramatic reversal from just last week, when all three counties — home to Albuquerque, Rio Rancho and Las Cruces — faced yellow-level restrictions that kept movie theaters closed and imposed a 10 p.m. closing time on restaurants that serve alcohol.
The state has relaxed some of its statistical goals since then and added vaccination targets to the calculation, allowing more counties to leap through the color-coded system.
“Making progress on vaccinations is a booster for every county,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase said Wednesday.
In an online briefing, he said the number of new COVID-19 infections in New Mexico has leveled off and might even be climbing — driven partly by more-contagious variants of the coronavirus.
But new vaccinations are outpacing new cases by a 50-to-1 ratio, he said, and vaccines remain effective against variants.
Just three counties remain under tighter restrictions — Valencia and Catron counties, which are green, and Chaves, which is yellow.
New Mexico has a four-color system — red, yellow, green and turquoise — for determining the scope of restrictions in its 33 counties based on statistical criteria.
Each county is graded on standards that include the number of new COVID-19 cases per person, the share of tests that come back positive and the percentage of residents who are vaccinated. The state is phasing in a higher vaccination target every two weeks.
Any county in turquoise, however, is permitted to stay there at least a month.
Bernalillo, Sandoval and Dona Ana counties moved from yellow to green to turquoise over the last week. Santa Fe County remained turquoise.
Native American tribes, pueblos and nations may have their own rules.
For bar and club owners, Bernalillo County’s move into turquoise was welcome news after more than a year of being closed.
“We’ve done our part, and it’s been 14 months closed now, so we’d love to get back to work, like a lot of other places have been for months now,” Launchpad owner Joe Anderson said.
Anderson said he didn’t expect to be able to open this soon, but he is ready to open and start holding shows at the music venue and bar in Downtown Albuquerque.
“We’re very happy,” he said. “We’re ready to reopen, to get shows going again.”
He said he expects to reopen on Friday and he said the venue may start having events as soon as June and July.
But for some club owners, it may be a while before the doors are actually opened.
“It’s literally like opening a new business all over again,” said Carri Phillis, owner of The Salt Yard and Effex.
Phillis said that while the news of Bernalillo County entering the turquoise level is unexpected and exciting, it doesn’t necessarily mean that bars and clubs will reopen overnight. Many bar owners have to weigh reopening costs with capacity restrictions and an uncertain future.
“It’s great, but … the thing is we could still go backwards into yellow,” she said.
Phillis said many bar and club owners are likely to pay upwards of six figures to reopen since the business owners will have to restart insurance policies, clean and prepare the business, hire and retrain employees and buy supplies.
“We’ve been closed for the entire year, so it’s going to take a few weeks to even get to the point that we can open the doors,” she said.
For now, she is planning on opening up the West Side location of The Salt Yard and will most likely hold off on opening her other two locations until the state is more open.
New Mexico is seeing an increasing share of young people among its new cases and hospitalizations, Scrase said. Younger people, however, tend to have shorter hospital stays and less-severe disease.
Private and public schools made up 65% of the employers Wednesday on the state’s Rapid Response watch list, which tracks infections among employees or students.
Scrase said most of the infections at schools are among students, with an overwhelming majority of teachers already having been vaccinated.
Vaccines are now available only to people 16 and older, but the state is preparing for the possibility of quick federal approval making kids 12 to 15 years old eligible.
Health Secretary Tracie Collins said she is asking parents to sign up their 12- to 15-year-olds for the vaccine — visit vaccineNM.org to register — so they can get a shot once it’s approved for their age group.
About 10,000 of kids that age are already registered, she said.
The state is also pushing to vaccinate 16- and 17-year-olds — about 30% of whom have already had at least their first shot.
Studies are also underway to ensure the vaccine is safe for kids under 11, Collins said.
New Mexico will be moving to smaller vaccination projects as health care workers try to reach more of the population.
The effort, Collins said, will involve going to schools, churches and workplaces and vaccinating everyone on site who wants a shot. An online form will be available next week to request the shot clinics.
At this point, 59% of residents 16 and older have received at least one shot and 45% are fully vaccinated. The state’s goal is to reach 60% of adults fully vaccinated — a standard that would trigger the reopening of businesses without capacity restrictions.
Collins and Scrase expressed optimism that the state will reach the goal by June 30, though it will depend on continuing to persuade New Mexicans to get the shots.
“If everybody gets vaccinated sooner, we’ll be done before the end of June,” Scrase said.
The state is encouraging primary care physicians throughout the state to sign up to receive vaccine supplies they can administer to patients.
The vaccines aren’t mandatory, but Collins said primary care providers are trusted voices who can help address any concerns people have about whether to get the shot.
The vaccines are free and safe, Collins said, and the state doesn’t share immigration status with federal authorities.
Vaccination, she said, is an important way to protect yourself and loved ones.
A more-contagious version of COVID-19 — known as the B117 variant, first identified in the United Kingdom — is emerging as a major source of infection in New Mexico, Scrase said.
It doesn’t appear to make people any sicker, he said, but it spreads 30% to 40% more easily. It’s one of many variants circulating in the state.
“We believe the daily cases would be extraordinarily low were it not for the emergence of variants,” Scrase said.
The B117 variant is resistant to some treatments, he said, but the evidence suggests vaccines are still effective at combatting it.
The variants are all the more reason, Scrase said, for people to complete their series of shots and wear masks, especially when indoors outside the home.
The state on Wednesday reported 214 new cases of COVID-19, just barely over the statewide goal of 210 or fewer. Two deaths were reported: a Bernalillo County man in his 80s and a Roosevelt County woman in her 60s.
Green to Turquoise
Bernalillo, Sandoval and Doña Ana counties are moving from green to turquoise, joining Santa Fe.
The changes mean:
— Restaurants and breweries may operate at 75% of indoor capacity, up from 50%
— Bars and clubs can operate at 33% indoor capacity rather than just outdoors
— Hair salons and close-contact businesses can operate at 75% capacity, up from 50%
— Movie theaters, concerts and sports venues, and other large entertainment venues can operate at 33% capacity indoors and 75% outdoors, 25% indoor and 50% outdoor
— The mass gatherings limit climbs from 20 people to 150 people
— Hotels, motels, short-term rentals and other places of lodging have no occupancy restrictions if they complete certification of health training, up from 75%.