Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett says people all over the state are hurting financially and emotionally from business closures and restrictions the governor has ordered to limit the spread of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, Duckett, a Republican who has been in office since 2018, declared a state of economic emergency for his town of some 45,000 residents and asked the governor to allow businesses deemed “nonessential” during the pandemic to reopen at 20 percent capacity by May 1.
The shutdown of all but essential businesses in New Mexico in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic was swift following a series of public health orders from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
What isn’t clear is when and how businesses deemed nonessential may reopen.
Duckett’s declaration of emergency — which will go before the Farmington City Council for consideration April 28 — came just two days after the New Mexico Business Coalition sent a “back to business” plan to the governor and the New Mexico Economic Development Department, recommending businesses be allowed to reopen as soon as possible with certain restrictions.
“My hope is that the governor would be able to see that there are some small, safe steps that could be taken to reopen business,” Duckett said in a phone interview Wednesday.
While lauding what he called the governor’s “decisive leadership” in working to slow the spread of the respiratory virus in New Mexico, Duckett said Lujan Grisham could “provide some light at the end of the tunnel and give New Mexicans something to look forward to. We’re going to have to get some of this back to normal in a small, safe way.”
He said businesses that reopen would be expected to adhere to health guidelines in place for large retail operations, grocery stores and gas stations that have continued operating, such as limiting the number of customers inside and implementing measures to ensure social distancing.
Duckett’s suggestion brought a heated response from the Governor’s Office, which noted the Farmington area has seen a significant jump in the virus.
“It would be unconscionable that anyone — be they a public figure or not — would be advocating for an easing of the absolutely essential imperative and need to stay home right now, and especially so given the situation of the Northwest region of the state,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor.
“Any reopenings at this point in time, even limited ones, will unequivocally lead to a gravely enhanced transmission of the virus, meaning more illness, meaning more death, and meaning our state’s hospital and health care capacity would be at even greater risk,” she added.
Santa Fe Mayor Alan Webber said the public health threat faced by New Mexico is “our highest priority and everything else comes afterward.”
“Obviously it’s painful and very difficult for people whose jobs have disappeared or whose businesses are threatened,” he added. “We are first and foremost charged with and responsible for keeping people healthy and breaking the back of the coronavirus. I support the governor and her unblinking recognition that our highest priority is the health of the people of New Mexico.”
The New Mexico Business Coalition, in its plan, suggested limiting customers at all businesses to 20 percent of the building capacity and requiring social-distancing measures and the use of face masks.
“We are offering a starting point for conversation,” said Carla Sonntag, the coalition’s president.
Two weeks after the coronavirus reaches a peak in New Mexico, the coalition wants businesses to be able to operate at 50 percent of their capacity.
While experts are not certain when the state will see its peak in coronavirus cases, Sonntag referred to the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation, which on Tuesday projected New Mexico would reach a peak, in terms of resources used to treat coronavirus patients, April 26.
By June 1, the coalition hopes to have businesses operating at 100 percent of capacity.
The state Economic Development Department had no comment on the group’s proposal, spokesman Bruce Krasnow said.
Lujan Grisham, in a Tuesday opinion piece published in The New Mexican, wrote: “Opening prematurely means exposing many more New Mexicans to risk — and extending our economic pain. … The surest way to efficiently reopen our economy is to effectively combat and ultimately defeat the virus.”
The coalition argues many big-box stores — which often sell household goods and groceries as well as items considered nonessential to public health and welfare — are allowed to remain open while smaller businesses were ordered to shut down.
“When you consider small businesses, people are not in any more risk [than at big stores], probably less,” Sonntag said. “You walk into a small store, there are just a small number of people in the store all day long. Why not allow these to open with the same requirements of big business?”
Sonntag noted the economic shutdown had an immediate impact on small businesses. “It has been devastating,” she said. “We have had businesses already say they would close permanently. We have others that are literally just hanging on.”
Jamie Church, president and CEO of the Farmington Chamber of Commerce, which represents 540 members, said she is sure some of the town’s businesses will not be able to reopen due to the required health and safety practices. But she supports the mayor’s actions because “we want every small-business owner to have a chance,” she said.
Duckett said he sent his declaration to all of New Mexico’s mayors Wednesday in the hope some will join him in calling for action.
“We’re waving a red flag up here,” he said.
“I expect there’s a lot of people out there who don’t feel safe, but getting stores back open will relieve some of that,” he added. “It’s a return to normalcy.”