Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had sharp words Friday afternoon for the mayor of Grants, who has vowed to allow businesses in the small city to reopen Monday — a decision that would be in direct violation of a state public health order.
“This notion that you don’t have to comply is wrong. That you can just open up businesses and not worry about public health issues is really quite frankly tantamount to opening up a public pool and having a pee section,” Lujan Grisham said in a nearly two-hour news conference.
“This makes absolutely no sense whatsoever, flies in the face of every single positive, productive, evidence-based public health effort and, quite frankly, I happen to know that the county commission is incredibly upset by these directions.”
The governor warned Friday that if businesses choose to follow Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks’ advice to defy state law by reopening Monday, they will be fined accordingly.
“And I absolutely don’t want that to occur,” Lujan Grisham said. “So I hope [the mayor] heeds all of our advice and walks back those statements.”
The governor’s statements came as another individual died Friday from complications related to COVID-19 in McKinley County, a county that neighbors Grants and is one of New Mexico’s coronavirus infection hotspots.
State health officials on Friday announced a total of six more deaths and 153 new cases of COVID-19. McKinley County, which has nearly 72,000 residents, had 67 new cases, bringing its total to 639. The rural county now has nearly as many cases as Bernalillo County, which has a population of about 679,000 and had 25 new cases, bringing its count to 651 positive tests.
Mortality is particularly high in assisted-living facilities: 45 percent of the state’s 84 deaths from the virus have stemmed from nursing homes or other long-term care facilities, Lujan Grisham said.
Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo wrote in a letter to the governor Friday that he was “shocked and dismayed” to hear the Grants mayor intends to reopen the city for commerce Monday and allow 100 city workers to return to work.
“In my opinion, this is a reckless and irresponsible decision that poses huge risks for the Pueblo of Acoma, which is next door to the town of Grants,” Vallo wrote. “I am seeking your intervention to protect the health and welfare of tribal families and other residents at the Pueblo of Acoma.”
Vallo noted that more than 25 percent of the 426 tests for COVID-19 in Cibola County, where Grants is located, were conducted on Acoma land at Acoma-Canoncito-Laguna Hospital.
Hicks on Thursday said he urged fellow mayors during a conference hosted by the New Mexico Municipal League to follow suit and encourage businesses to open in direct defiance of public health orders meant to contain the spread of the virus.
Hicks also compared Lujan Grisham’s use of state police to the “Gestapo,” drawing a strong rebuke from the Governor’s Office and the Anti-Defamation League.
“We urge elected officials and all New Mexicans to stop using inaccurate Nazi analogies when expressing frustration and disagreement over public policy,” ADL Mountain States Regional Director Scott Levin said in a statement Friday. “The analogies demean the lives and memories of the millions who were murdered at the hands of the Nazi regime. There are better ways to engage in debate on this issue.”
Anger and frustration over Lujan Grisham’s order closing nonessential businesses are brewing in many smaller cities, villages and townships.
Aside from Grants, the town of Clayton and Union County in the far northeast corner of the state passed a resolution Thursday afternoon allowing other businesses that have been closed during the crisis to reopen.
The New Mexico Business Coalition sent a letter Thursday signed by 19 mayors, including Hicks, questioning the state’s death projection and calling on the governor to end the shutdown.
On Friday, about a dozen vocal demonstrators waved signs in protest of stay-at-home instructions outside the governor’s mansion, and about two dozen people stood in protest in Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza, accompanied by cars honking in support, a livestream of the event showed.
“Everyone is essential when it comes to their paycheck,” retired nurse Bonnie Putzig said, holding a sign that read: “open your [cartoon eyes], it’s just a flu bug.”
Across the country, demonstrations against stay-at-home orders have boiled to the surface. Many businesses opened in Georgia despite the health risks Friday after getting the Republican governor’s blessing. Republicans in New Mexico also have vented their frustration over the governor’s orders restricting commerce.
Miguel Rodriguez, born and raised in Santa Fe, said he’s not worried for his job at an auto body paint shop, but he protested Friday at the governor’s mansion anyway.
“I need to get back to my kid’s sports. I need to get back to life,” Rodriguez said. “And at the end of the day, if you believe in God and God is calling on you, it was your time.”
Pamela Miller, a ranch-sitter from Cerrillos, said her husband, who runs a limo service, was able to secure a coveted Paycheck Protection Program loan for small businesses. But she said the stay-at-home order continuing through May would hurt them financially and may wipe out other businesses altogether.
When asked about the contagious nature of COVID-19 and the danger it poses to older people or others with fragile health, Miller chalked it up to the new normal.
But polls show such demonstrators, while vocal, are likely not in the majority.
An April Quinnipiac University poll found 81 percent of voters favored a national stay-at-home order. According to a Pew Research Center Poll, 66 percent of Americans were concerned restrictions would be lifted too soon compared to the 32 percent who said restrictions would be lifted “not soon enough.” The majority view was held by people across gender, racial and income groups, as well as a majority of Democrats and Republicans polled.
During the Friday news conference, Lujan Grisham empathized with businesses on the verge of collapse after being shut down by public health orders. But the governor implored people to continue following social-distancing and stay-at-home instructions as New Mexico weathers the COVID-19 crisis. She also mentioned that a special session likely will be held the second week of June, when lawmakers are expected to make cuts to the budget they passed in February.
Of Hicks, she said he likely “meant well by saying, ‘I stand with all of the workers and business.’
“We do too,” Lujan Grisham said. “But you stand with them by keeping them safe, by following the rules and by helping us … make sure that as we go back to some degree of normalcy, including getting people back to work, that we do that in a way that protects every one of us.”
Reporter Danielle Prokop contributed to this story.