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SANTA FE – In an abrupt turnabout, New Mexico’s face mask mandate was lifted Friday for fully vaccinated individuals. And social distancing guidelines for those inoculated against COVID-19 were largely scrapped as well.
A day after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear a mask in most indoor and outdoor settings, state Health Secretary Tracie Collins on Friday issued a revised public health order adopting the federal guidelines.
The new order, which took effect immediately, keeps the mask mandate in place for nonvaccinated individuals with exceptions for eating, drinking, exercising outside and attending small outdoor gatherings.
In addition, New Mexico public schools will continue to require all teachers, students and visitors to wear face masks except for when eating and drinking, according to a Public Education Department spokeswoman.
But the more than 868,000 New Mexicans who have been fully vaccinated – or about 51.7% of those eligible to get the shot – will no longer have to wear masks in most public settings.
“Getting vaccinated is the ticket to a safe and healthy COVID-free future,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a Friday statement. “We are close and getting closer. But that all depends on New Mexicans continuing to protect themselves and their community by getting vaccinated.”
Previously, the Democratic governor had said New Mexico’s requirements for face mask wearing and social distancing would remain in place, even as the state eased business restrictions and allowed for more tourism-related activities.
But the new CDC guidance on face coverings that surprised some health experts when it was released Thursday prompted a quick review and revision to the state’s public health order, which carries the weight of law.
Under the new public health order that runs through June 11, businesses, churches and other entities can still impose more stringent virus-related requirements, including face mask mandates.
And even fully vaccinated individuals will likely still have to wear masks in certain public settings – such as airplanes and hospitals.
On the streets of Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood on Friday afternoon, most people were still wearing masks, even outside.
Christopher Valdez, wearing a mask which he said was partly out of habit and partly to hide a pimple, and Marissa Sanchez, not wearing a mask but clutching it in her hand, were waiting to go into Happy Accidents, a new bar and eatery.
Valdez, who owns Inspire Salon in Downtown, and Sanchez, who works there, said they were at the business when they heard the news. Both have been fully vaccinated for months.
“We took off our masks then and we were working,” Sanchez said. “But I was like, ‘Oh I feel naked without it.’ It doesn’t feel normal.”
Valdez said moving forward he won’t require customers to wear masks.
“We’re not going to make a big deal about it,” he said. “If people don’t want to wear their masks we’re not going to make them as long as they’re vaccinated.”
But, he acknowledged, it’s going to be difficult to tell if someone has been fully vaccinated or not.
“We’re not going to make them show us any proof – I don’t even know if that’s legal,” Valdez said. “It’s going to be an honor system because we feel if they’re not vaccinated it’s on them a little bit.”
New Mexico was among the first states to require that face coverings be worn in public settings, when Lujan Grisham revised a previous public health order to include a face mask mandate in May 2020.
But the face mask requirement has drawn criticism, even though a Journal Poll conducted last fall found 78% of likely voters supported it, and some county sheriffs have refused to enforce the mandate.
As of September, State Police officers had issued $100 citations to only a small number of violators.
The Lujan Grisham administration last month relaxed the mask mandate for outdoor settings in response to CDC guidance, but left it in place for indoor settings.
While some governors had eliminated their states’ mask requirements in recent weeks, New Mexico was one of 25 states that still had statewide face covering requirements entering Friday, according to the AARP.
New Mexico also has one of the nation’s highest COVID-19 vaccine administration rates. A total of 51.7% of eligible state residents were fully vaccinated as of Friday, according to state Department of Health data, and 62.6% of New Mexicans had received at least one dose of the vaccine.
Lujan Grisham has vowed to remove capacity limits on businesses when 60% of eligible state residents are fully vaccinated, a threshold health officials say New Mexico is on track to hit by late June.
As vaccinations have taken hold, the number of COVID-19 patients in New Mexico hospitals has generally fallen.
The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized around the state dipped to just 112 patients on Friday, according to state reports, marking a 23% decrease over the last two weeks.
New Mexico health officials also reported one new virus-related fatality – a woman in her 70s from San Juan County – pushing the statewide death toll to 4,113 since the pandemic hit the state in March 2020.
Some New Mexico residents were still digesting the relaxed mask mandate on Friday afternoon.
Chris Castillo said he’s only gotten the first dose of the vaccine – the side effects were strange and painful, scaring him off from getting the second shot – but he feels perfectly comfortable ditching his mask.
Even still, he was wearing one when a Journal reporter approached, saying he had just come from a store and it was a habit so he hadn’t taken it off yet.
“For me, I’d be happy to not wear one all the time,” Castillo said, removing his mask.
Chris Walker, on the other hand, said he’d likely continue wearing a mask at least at first since he doesn’t know if others have been vaccinated.
Plus, he said, referencing the mask he was wearing that had rapper Conway the Machine’s face on it that perfectly lined up with his own nose and mouth, there are so many fashionable and cool masks out there he’s not ready to quit.
Still, he said, the adjustment to the public health order feels like progress.
“You didn’t really know when we’d get to the point of stopping wearing it,” Walker said.
For now, masks will still be a requirement at some eateries, including Downtown’s 505 Central food hall, owner Mark Baker said.
“The most important thing is that our customers feel safe, you know, we want the food hall to be safe, and we want people to feel safe,” he said.
Baker said that he plans to reassess in about a week, but overall, he sees the end of a mask mandate as good news.
For his part, Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller lauded the progress made slowing the spread of COVID-19, but cautioned the virus was not yet defeated.
“Businesses, event spaces, and workplaces may still hold their own mask policies to protect their staff and patrons and it’s important that we respect those requirements,” Keller said in a statement. “It’s best to keep our masks on-hand and be cognizant of our surroundings.”
Journal staff writers Dan McKay and Pilar Martinez contributed to this report.