Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico legislative officials will require members of the public to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend the upcoming special and regular sessions of the Legislature – an announcement that triggered a partisan clash at the Capitol.
Democratic legislative leaders in the majority praised the move Tuesday as a commonsense way to protect people inside the building, while opening up legislative hearings to in-person public participation.
Republicans, in turn, said the restriction would infringe on visitors’ privacy rights and keep opposing viewpoints out of the Roundhouse.
The vaccine mandate will apply to members of the public, not legislators, who are empowered to serve as long as they meet constitutional requirements for the office.
At least some lawmakers have said they have not been vaccinated.
The new policy comes after the public was barred from the Capitol for legislative sessions held over the past year due to the pandemic.
Public testimony instead has occurred through such videoconferencing programs as Zoom.
House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, said Tuesday that virtual participation will continue at the Roundhouse to ensure New Mexicans “have the access they deserve to their elected leaders and the legislative process.”
Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislative Council Service, the administrative arm of the Legislature, announced the vaccine policy.
The Capitol has been open to visitors in recent months, though a mask mandate is enforced.
For the special redistricting session next month, members of the public will have to show proof of full vaccination – either one dose of Johnson & Johnson or two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer shots – to enter the Roundhouse, though proof of a booster dose will not be required for now.
The requirement will remain in effect, Burciaga said, for the 30-day regular session that begins Jan. 18.
Additionally, the Capitol will not allow special events, tours or information booths, and the mask mandate will remain in effect.
“Given the high number of COVID-19 cases across the state and the strain this continues to put on state resources, it is incumbent on us to protect everyone in the Capitol complex while conducting the state’s business,” Burciaga said. He also said the Roundhouse’s vaccine card screening system will be similar to that used during this year’s State Fair in Albuquerque.
Those entering the Capitol will also be checked for firearms after a ban on carrying weapons into the building was approved last month and will take effect Dec. 6.
Republican legislative leaders blasted the new policies.
In a joint statement, Senate GOP floor leader Greg Baca of Belen and Senate Minority Whip Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho said the changes are an attempt by Democrats to operate without having to be accountable to the public.
“We strongly oppose this decision as one that is antithetical to our transparent legislative process,” Baca and Brandt said. “Just one year after the Capitol was surrounded by a fence, barring the people from their house, the leaders of the Legislature are yet again erecting a barrier to New Mexicans’ access to their government.”
A chain-link fence went up around the Capitol before a 60-day legislative session this year after an FBI memo warned about the possibility of armed protests throughout the country. The fence has since been removed.
House Minority Leader James Townsend, R-Artesia, said the “public should find it eerily unnerving that the same politicians who have held public meetings in the Capitol and across the state, including a climate summit, now want again to limit public participation in our upcoming legislative sessions.”
For the second consecutive year, New Mexico is weathering a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the run-up to Thanksgiving.
Since Nov. 1, the number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in New Mexico has shot up 74% – from 368 to 639 on Tuesday, according to Department of Health reports.
Seven hospitals in the state have activated crisis standards of care, a step that can allow the rationing of care when demand for beds and other resources outstrips the available supply.
The Department of Health on Tuesday reported 1,189 new cases of COVID-19 and 12 more fatalities, pushing the statewide death toll to 5,289 residents.
Unlike last year, state officials say they’re not planning to impose business closures or capacity limits in an attempt to slow the virus spread.
As of Tuesday, roughly 85% of New Mexico residents age 18 and older had received at least one vaccine dose, while 74.1% of adults were fully vaccinated.
While some vaccinated individuals have tested positive for COVID-19, unvaccinated residents made up 72.5% of new COVID-19 cases and 79.3% of hospitalizations during a four-week period that ended Monday, according to DOH data.
Of the 164 virus-related deaths reported during that time period, 159 – or about 97% – were unvaccinated and five people were vaccinated.