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New Mexico Gov. Announces New Restrictions Amid COVID Spike

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s new restrictions include reducing maximum hotel occupancy, lowering the allowable size of mass gatherings, and forcing establishments serving alcohol to close at 10 p.m. every night.

by Jens Gould, The Santa Fe New Mexican / October 14, 2020
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham goes over the latest data on coronavirus cases in New Mexico during a news conference at the state Capitol building in Santa Fe on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. TNS
(TNS) - Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham tightened her administration's public health restrictions Tuesday as New Mexico’s novel coronavirus numbers continued to spike far above the state’s targets.
 
The governor will extend the state’s emergency public health order Friday, when the current restrictions are due to expire, and will add new rules aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
 
The new restrictions include reducing maximum hotel occupancy rates, lowering the allowable size of mass gatherings, and forcing food and drink establishments serving alcohol to close at 10 p.m. every night.
 
The state also will require people arriving from “higher-risk states” to self-quarantine for a period of no less than 14 days, or for the duration of their stay in New Mexico.
 
“When the community spread of the virus becomes uncontrollable — and we are fast approaching that point — our only option is to simply shut down those opportunities for the virus,” Lujan Grisham said in a statement.
 
The changes come after Lujan Grisham cautioned last week the state might need to clamp down on New Mexico’s economy again amid a huge rise in coronavirus cases.
 
Since then, the numbers have continued to worsen — a setback for a state whose coronavirus metrics have regularly outperformed most of the nation for much of the pandemic.
 
New Mexico’s test positivity rate, which measures how many people who are tested for COVID-19 turn out to have the disease, has shot up to 5.3 percent. The statistic was 3.4 percent at the beginning of the month and is now above the state’s target of 5 percent.
 
New Mexico’s seven-day average rose to 333 on Oct. 7 from 220 just a week earlier; the state’s target is 168.
 
The COVID-19 transmission rate is now 1.26, higher than the target of 1.05. A rate below 1 would mean the the virus is in decline rather than spreading.
 
On Tuesday, state officials reported 355 additional COVID-19 cases, about one-third of which were in Bernalillo County. Three more deaths were announced, and 125 people are hospitalized in New Mexico for the disease.
 
Lujan Grisham reiterated a warning that she could reinstate more stringent restrictions “in the near future.”
 
If case numbers do not improve, the state will again restrict indoor dining service and “significantly roll back” occupancy limits at retail and dining establishments, the Governor’s Office said.
 
“Rollbacks will mean more economic turmoil for so many workers and business owners in our state who have already suffered and sacrificed so much,” Lujan Grisham said. “But it is our only chance to prevent more devastating illness and to save lives. No one wants to come to that point.”
 
The current public health order, which expires Oct. 16 and will be extended along with the new amendments, restricts most businesses to partial capacity.
 
As for the measures announced Tuesday, hotels that have completed the “NM Safe Certified” training program will have their maximum occupancy cut to 60 percent from 75 percent. Places of lodging that haven’t completed the program will see that limit reduced to 25 percent from 50 percent.
 
Gatherings of more than five people will be prohibited as of Friday, a reduction from the prior limit of 10 people.
 
As for traveler quarantines, people arriving from “high-risk states” can currently avoid a mandatory 14-day self-quarantine by testing negative for COVID-19 within 72 hours of their arrival in New Mexico.
 
But that exemption will be rescinded Friday, requiring people to self-quarantine if they arrive from states with a test positivity rate exceeding 5 percent and higher than 80 per 100,000 residents.
 
All but eight U.S. states were considered high risk as of Tuesday. The list is updated every Wednesday on the state’s COVID-19 website, cv.nmhealth.org/travel-recommendations.
 
The governor’s Economic Recovery Council, a group of 15 New Mexico business and labor leaders, recommended the governor impose a mandatory 10 p.m. closing time for restaurants that serve alcohol, according to the Governor’s Office.
 
Allan Affeldt, council member and owner of the Plaza Hotel in Las Vegas, N.M., said he supported the measure because some restaurants and bars “blatantly disregard public safety” by operating late at night and violating safety practices.
 
“These problems nearly all occur after hours, when some restaurants are simply acting as bars, where spread of the virus is not inhibited,” he said in the governor’s statement.
 
New Mexico plans to “rigorously enforce" the 10 p.m. closing time, the Governor’s Office said, without elaborating on any planned enforcement mechanisms.
 
Some Santa Fe businesses said they would be negatively impacted by the changes and might have to lay off workers.
 
“The entire pandemic is tough on everybody,” said Sylwia Handzel, owner of Boxcar, which normally stays open until 1 a.m. “I understand what the governor is doing and I respect it, but it is extremely difficult. With everything closing at 10 p.m., I will probably have to lay off people.”
 
Other establishments said the earlier closing time wouldn’t have a big impact in Santa Fe, which — to put it mildly — isn’t known as a late-night town.
 
“We are closing at 9:30 p.m. since March 16,” said Patrick Lambert, co-owner of the Cowgirl. “It doesn’t have any impact on us per se.”
 
Marja Martin, owner of Paloma restaurant, said she is generally supportive of the governor’s public health orders but was puzzled by the 10 p.m. closure. Paloma closes its kitchen at 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
 
“It seems like an arbitrary thing not decided in a scientific way,” Martin said.
 
Del Charro at the Inn of the Governors, which are both currently closed because of employee coronavirus cases, was previously open past 10 p.m. three days a week, said Sam Gerberding, general manager of both.
 
“It will affect a few restaurants but not as profoundly as other limitations have,” said Gerberding, referring to seating restrictions at restaurants. “I do think 60 percent will have an impact at hotels. There have been some weekends where some hotels have had 75 percent occupancy.”
 
Rik Blyth, general manager at La Fonda on the Plaza, said he didn’t believe tourism was driving the spike in COVID-19 case numbers.
 
La Fonda has reached 75 percent occupancy on Friday and Saturday nights, with about 50 percent to 60 percent occupancy Sunday to Thursday, general manager Rik Blyth said.
 
“It’s very frustrating,” Blyth said. “We’ll have to probably lay off staff.”
 
As in recent weeks, Lujan Grisham once again urged New Mexicans to practice social distancing and COVID-19 safety measures.
 
She said last week many residents were interacting in public without wearing face masks, attending large gatherings and traveling to too many places every day.
 
“The crisis is not over. The virus is still with us,” she said. “Let’s step it up, all together, once again.”
 
Staff reporter Teya Vitu contributed to this report.
 
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©2020 The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.)
 
Visit The Santa Fe New Mexican (Santa Fe, N.M.) at www.santafenewmexican.com
 
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