Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham put New Mexico’s reopening plans on hold Thursday after a spike in the COVID-19 transmission rate and as neighboring states reported record numbers of cases.
Officials are pausing the second phase of a reopening plan and will wait at least an additional week before making changes to public health orders originally scheduled for July 1.
While businesses that are now open can remain operational, the state will delay decisions on raising the limit on mass gatherings and allowing additional openings, Lujan Grisham said.
“We are not quite ready to go to phase two,” she said during a news conference broadcast on her Facebook page.
Since initially shutting down schools and businesses as the novel coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, New Mexico allowed some businesses to reopen, although at a slower pace than most other states.
But New Mexico’s seven-day average of new COVID-19 cases has been on the rise since the beginning of June, while its disease transmission rate has surged to 1.12, which is above the state’s target of 1.05, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said.
That spread rate has increased in four of the state’s five regions over the past week. For instance, the number dropped below 1 in the southwest part of the state, meaning the disease was considered to be receding, but since then has shot up to 1.27 in that area.
“There is absolutely no question that the trending is going up. This is an issue,” Scrase said.
Lujan Grisham attributed the trend, in part, to the limited reopenings of many businesses and parks, as well as events like the primary election this month.
But she also blamed some people’s behavior, striking a harsher tone Thursday than in previous briefings. The governor noted many state residents were failing to wear face coverings and maintaining social-distancing measures.
“New Mexicans have actually gotten really lax about wearing masks and taking this seriously,” she said.
The governor said she had seen recent photos of New Mexicans violating all the main distancing instructions by congregating in groups larger than five people, not wearing masks and not remaining 6 feet apart.
“Based on what I saw today and photos in Albuquerque, I would say I saw about a 30 percent compliance with masks,” she said. “If that rate continues, I know we’re not going to see a reduction in transmission.”
The reopening of the economy nationwide and fewer COVID-19 news conferences with White House officials and other governors also has spurred Americans to let down their guard, Lujan Grisham said.
“It gave way too many Americans a false sense of security,” she said.
As a result, the governor said she would consider reimposing harsher public health restrictions if the COVID-19 data continues to worsen.
While Lujan Grisham did not elaborate much on what that might entail, she said the state could enforce mask-wearing by issuing citations to people who don’t have face coverings in public — although she noted she didn’t want to go that far.
“Everything is back on the table about how we might enforce mask-wearing,” she said.
She also said the state could “restrict openings for the next set of businesses” if residents continue to defy the mask instructions.
She and Scrase urged New Mexicans not to regard the wearing of face coverings as a political issue but as a precaution strongly recommended by public health experts.
“Protect your fellow New Mexicans,” she said.
Lujan Grisham pointed out the state’s stay-at-home order has not been lifted, and she urged people to remain in their dwellings unless it’s necessary to go out.
The state Health Department reported 207 additional COVID-19 cases Thursday, bringing the state’s total to 11,192. There were five new coronavirus-related deaths for a total of 485.
There are currently 135 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state. Only 270 intensive care beds were occupied, far below the state’s threshold of 460.
New Mexico’s COVID-19 numbers are also on the rise because of the rapid spread occurring in neighboring Texas and Arizona, which opened their economies sooner and faster, officials said.
Texas is seeing an average rate of 4,195 new cases per day, and some intensive care units are close to or over their capacity, Scrase said.
Meanwhile, the total number of cases in Arizona has tripled since Memorial Day as the number of positive tests has accelerated from 5 percent to 22 percent, he added.
“In Arizona’s case, this is an absolute disaster,” Scrase said.
The trends are particularly troublesome for New Mexico because a significant number of Texas and Arizona counties close to the New Mexico border have high case rates.
El Paso County, for instance, has the sixth-highest number of cases in Texas and has recorded 4,488 cases and 120 deaths.
Additionally, many state residents travel across the border as part of their daily lives, and officials have traced significant numbers of newly confirmed cases to neighboring states.
Lujan Grisham noted one family from Hidalgo County that crossed state lines for a graduation ceremony and brought back COVID-19.
The governor said the state expects out-of-state visitors to wear masks and prefers people don’t travel to New Mexico at all.
The increase in cases could affect schools as well: Lujan Grisham said schools — which this week received a reopening plan for the Public Education Department — won’t be able to reopen in the fall if people don’t socially distance.
“We cannot go back to school unless we manage this virus and the spread of this virus better,” Lujan Grisham said. “We owe it to every single student.”
The partisan divide on the reopening issue continued Thursday, with Republicans continuing their criticism of the governor’s health policies.
Before the briefing, House Minority Whip Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, called on Lujan Grisham to allow wineries to reopen.
“For months, you and your staff have chosen winners and losers in New Mexico’s economy,” Montoya said in a statement. “With the Balloon Fiesta being canceled, and our tourism economy essentially shutdown by your orders, our state is going to face a worse than expected financial crush as our tourism economic drivers are shut out of the recovery.”
As for what happens next, Lujan Grisham said officials will continue to rely on medical data to inform their decisions.
She said the state could still continue to reopen and allow more businesses to reopen next month, but New Mexicans would have to do their part.
“I need a week’s worth of data, which is why I’m pausing,” she said. “I need to know that New Mexicans will adhere to COVID-safe practices.”