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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is giving New Mexicans some more face time.
Citing improved COVID-19 data, Lujan Grisham on Thursday announced that masks are no longer required in most indoor public settings. The move – effective immediately – comes 2½ weeks before the state’s mask mandate was set to expire and aligns New Mexico with most of the rest of the country.
Lujan Grisham gave the update during a news conference at the end of New Mexico’s 30-day Legislative session, dramatically removing her own mask in the process.
“I’m delighted not to be wearing a mask,” the governor told reporters gathered in her office.
But some exceptions remain.
The new public health order mandates continued mask usage in hospitals, assisted living centers and certain other health care settings, as well as in state correctional and juvenile justice facilities.
It also leaves school rules up to individual districts, requiring masks unless district or local education agency authorities decide otherwise. Albuquerque Public Schools and several other large public school districts – Rio Rancho, Las Cruces and Farmington – each said Thursday they were lifting their mandates.
“Masks will be optional,” LCPS Superintendent Ralph Ramos said in a news release. “And we will respect the decision of students, families and staff to choose for themselves whether or not they want to wear a mask – indoors or out.”
Decline in cases
Lujan Grisham cited a recent decline in New Mexico hospitalizations related to COVID-19 as a justification for the decision. There were 427 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state on Thursday, according to the New Mexico Department of Health. That’s down from 713 three weeks ago.
“We saved tens of thousands of lives and we kept our hospitals as protected and supported as humanly possible,” the governor said.
COVID-19 case counts also have waned. The state reported 999 new infections Thursday and 17 deaths, including three that occurred more than 30 days ago.
The state is now averaging 1,023 new cases per day for the past week, according to a Journal analysis. In late January, the seven-day average was 4,877 new cases per day.
Still, Lujan Grisham’s abrupt announcement appeared to take many by surprise, including some state lawmakers.
“I’m kind of in a state of shock getting oxygen,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, after taking off his mask during the post-session news conference.
But Senate President Pro Tem Mimi Stewart, D-Albuquerque, left her face mask on, saying, “everybody’s ready to take them off – except for me.”
Specifically, Stewart said she was leaving her mask on to protect staffers who have young children and elderly family members.
‘It’s the right time for us’
During the Thursday news conference, Lujan Grisham said high-quality face masks mitigate transmission of COVID-19 and said a state vaccine mandate for hospital workers and other types of workers would likely remain in place.
She also insisted her decision to lift the mask mandate was not politically motivated. Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce in a statement called Thursday’s mask news “nothing but political expediency.”
But Lujan Grisham initially declined to revise the mandate when other states started taking such action, saying her decision was instead based on modeling showing a coming drop in hospitalizations.
“I am not paying attention to what’s going on around the country,” she said. “It’s not a political decision – it’s the right time for us.”
Acting state Health Secretary David Scrase said in an interview the Lujan Grisham administration was not directing New Mexicans to stop wearing face masks.
“We’re not recommending people stop wearing masks – we’re just leaving it up to them,” he told the Journal.
He also said the combination of more widespread home-testing for COVID-19, elevated state vaccination rates and an increase in available treatments for the virus such as an antiviral pill also played into the decision to lift the mask mandate.
“I’ve been contemplating how we get rid of all the mandates since we started them,” Scrase said.
The governor’s announcement comes as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mulls a change to its mask guidance.
New Mexico was one of the last states with a statewide mask mandate still in place. Heading into Thursday, the state’s prevailing public health order required indoor face coverings and was scheduled to run until March 4.
A map by The New York Times showed that as of Thursday, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Hawaii, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico still had a mask mandate in place, and a handful of others have mask requirements for schools.
But many of those states had already announced dates for when their mandates end.
Oregon’s mask mandate is coming to an end on March 31. Illinois is ending its statewide mask mandate on Feb. 28 and the Washington, D.C., mandate is coming to an end on March 1, according to The New York Times. The Seattle Times reported that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday said the state’s mask mandate in most places would end on March 21.
The CDC is still recommending on its website that people, even if fully vaccinated, wear a mask in indoor public spaces. Masks are still required on planes, buses and other forms of public transportation, according to the CDC. A city of Albuquerque spokeswoman confirmed that masks must still be worn on ABQ Ride buses and at the Albuquerque International Sunport.
And they will still be required on the Navajo Nation, said President Jonathan Nez. The Navajo Nation stretches from across northwestern New Mexico, northeastern Arizona and southern Utah. That area was particularly hard hit by the pandemic.
Thursday’s New Mexico mask news drew mixed reactions. Responses to Lujan Grisham’s tweet about lifting the mandate ran the gamut, with some celebrating but others complaining it was “too soon” and would invite a new case surge.
Albuquerque residents who spoke to the Journal on Thursday also had disparate views.
Ruben Ravago, a retiree and grandfather, said he planned to continue wearing his mask out of concern for others.
“This (virus) is so unpredictable,” he said outside a Northwest Albuquerque shopping center. “I understand why people dislike (masks), but I just feel comfortable wearing mine.”
Another shopper, Franchesca Martinez, said she is at high-risk of virus complications and is not ready to go mask-free.
“Honestly, if it’s still as many cases as (now), I’ll still wear mine,” she said.
But some customers at a Northeast Albuquerque grocery store said they were fine with the change.
One called the mandate “unenforceable,” citing the dwindling level of compliance around town. Another – who said she quit wearing a mask some time ago – said having one less regulation might make other measures more palatable to people frustrated by pandemic rules.
“I’m really glad they lifted the mask mandate,” said the shopper, who identified herself only as Robin. “I think more people will be willing to maybe get vaccinated or comply with other things like staying home when they’re sick if they don’t have (other rules).
“I feel like everybody feels over it.”
Thursday’s state policy change left many scrambling.
“We knew it was coming but we were kind of surprised with the way it happened today,” said Shelly Prant, CEO of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Albuquerque.
Prant said most of the public health orders are tweaked with some notice, but Thursday’s order had the staff at the community center scrambling to decide whether to change rules at the same time as their phone was flooded by calls from members curious as to the center’s decision.
“We had to just be very reactive in the moment, which is hard and challenging,” Prant said.
Ultimately, the center will be lifting requirements for its roughly 4,000 members to wear masks indoors, but unvaccinated employees will continue to wear masks and take weekly COVID-19 tests.
The new rules may also result in some renewed memberships.
“We also lost a lot of members because they didn’t want to work out with masks on,” Prant said.
University of New Mexico officials said the mask mandate there will remain in place for now but is under review.
Leslie Radigan, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, said church leaders had made no announcements as of Thursday evening about enforcing masking requirements for Mass this weekend.
Thursday isn’t the first time during this pandemic that Lujan Grisham lifted the state’s mask mandate. She did so for vaccinated individuals in May 2021. Surging delta variant cases prompted her to reinstate it about three months later.
Journal staff writers Ryan Boetel, Pilar Martinez and Olivier Uyttebrouck contributed to this report.