New Mexico’s slow economic reopening is rolling back as coronavirus cases rise in the state and across the nation, with severe spikes in Texas and Arizona.
New Mexico, in the past two weeks, has seen a 79 percent increase in the daily count of new cases, a top state health official said.
In response, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced in a news conference Thursday that effective Monday, indoor dining at restaurants would again be barred and fall contact sports at K-12 schools were canceled.
The prospects for reopening New Mexico’s public schools by the Aug. 3 target date also have darkened.
“We are at war with COVID-19,” the governor said during a two-hour talk broadcast live on Facebook. “We lost the battle over Memorial Day weekend going forward. And I fully expect as we’re waging our war against it that we’ll win again. We will win.”
State data shows there have been 3,068 new cases of the coronavirus reported in New Mexico in the past two weeks, with daily counts topping 200 — and sometimes nearing 300 — on nine of those days. As of Thursday, the total positive tests in the state was 14,251, and 533 New Mexico residents had died from the virus.
The state’s transmission rate for the novel coronavirus, which had dropped below a target of 1.05, is now 1.16, meaning it is spreading more rapidly.
While the overwhelming majority of early deaths were among some of the state’s oldest residents, COVID-19 is now taking a heavier toll on younger people. Two of the six people whose deaths were reported Thursday were in their 30s.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said numbers are rising in almost every part of New Mexico and among all age groups, including an 18 percent increase in new cases among people under 19.
Officials also are concerned about rising numbers of cases in adults ages 20 to 39. More than 44 percent of cases reported in the past 14 days were in that age group.
Health officials are seeing more complications among young people, Scrase said. “We’re starting to see more mortality in younger age groups.”
To help stem the spread of the illness, the governor’s updated public health order limits dining at restaurants and breweries to outdoor patios. Restaurants that defy the prohibition on indoor dining will face a fine of up to $5,000 a day, she said.
Face masks will be required without exception — including at gyms, which were permitted to remain open, and when exercising outdoors. Violators can be fined $100.
Out-of-state visitors will be barred from public state parks.
And there will be no contact sports at public K-12 schools, the governor said. That includes high school football, soccer and wrestling.
The rising number of cases also does not bode well when it comes to sending public school students back to classrooms.
If the state doesn’t flatten the curve over the next few weeks, “We can’t safely reopen schools,” Lujan Grisham said.
Officials won’t make a final decision for another seven to 14 days on whether to open on Aug. 3, she said. The governor cited President Donald Trump’s warning Wednesday that schools will see the loss of federal funding if they don’t open this fall.
“We’re not going to be threatened by the federal government on safe school openings,” Lujan Grisham said. “We’re going to do it right. We’re going to be effective. And I predict you will see many states follow suit — because families want to know that their kids are safe; they want to know that they’re safe when their kids come home. They don’t want schools to start and stop.
“And they want to know that their educators and every public education staff person is as safe as they can be,” she added. “We owe it to them.”
She offered three possible scenarios for what might happen if the state hasn’t met certain criteria related to the virus, such as a lower transmission rate:
- Delay the opening by a week or two.
- Have an “incredibly postponed” start date, which means classrooms could be closed until winter — or longer.
- Don’t reopen schools at all for certain age groups. This means those students would learn only through online programs that were initiated in the spring.
Lujan Grisham said she hopes that doesn’t happen. “It’s just not the same,” she said of distance learning, “and in a state that does not have connectivity, it’s not even fair” to many children and families.
Veronica García, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, wasn’t daunted by the governor’s words. The local district has been prepared for a full shift to remote learning if schools can’t reopen, she said.
She’d like more clarity about how public education will proceed if coronavirus cases continue to rise, García said, but for now “it looks like we’re in a holding pattern” as school leaders await further news.
Roberta Roybal, who teaches health classes at Santa Fe High, said she was pleased to hear the governor was taking the health of students and employees seriously.
While she is eager to get back to the classroom, Roybal said she worries about bringing the virus back to her family. Some of her students also have told her they are afraid to go back, she said.
But Roybal said she is heartened by the governor’s mindset. “If the government says we’re not going back, then we’re not going back — that’s plain and simple,” she said.
Jenni St. Clair, who teaches gifted students at Carlos Gilbert Elementary School, said the governor’s thoughts about postponing the opening of schools rather than switching entirely to digital learning is “a great idea, because we’re not ready.”
Many school leaders said they hadn’t watched the governor’s news conference and declined to comment on the uncertain outlook for reopening.
Lujan Grisham and health officials reiterated the key to reopening on time is more residents adhering to COVID-safe practices: wearing masks and maintaining social distance.
“I’m depending on you to get this right,” the governor said.
Dr. Nancy Wright, president of the New Mexico Medical Society, also spoke at the news conference, urging people to wear a mask or other face covering.
Doing so will save lives, Wright said. “Isn’t that a good enough reason?”
Scrase offered some grim reasons for younger New Mexico residents to take the virus more seriously.
He cited the case of a Chicago woman in her 20s who underwent a lung transplant after she developed severe lung damage following inflammation brought on by COVID-19.
Other young adults have experienced strokes, hallucinations, depression, insomnia and brain inflammation, he said.
Doctors are even finding that some young men infected with the virus who show no symptoms of COVID-19 have developed infertility.
“These are not things to be taken lightly,” Scrase said. “… This is a disease that affects all ages, and extreme care needs to be taken for young adults as well as older adults.”
The return of some past pandemic-related restrictions met with condemnation by the New Mexico Republican Party, which has advocated a speedy reopening of the state’s economy for months.
“People again can’t go inside a restaurant, but they can crowd the aisles at big-box stores that are taking New Mexico’s hard-earned dollars out of state,” said Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce. “The governor’s order makes no sense, and our citizens are paying the price. Many will never recover. The governor doesn’t have any real answers, no concrete strategy to this serious economic crisis.”
New Mexico Democratic Party Chairwoman Marg Elliston, meanwhile, praised the new order, calling it “the best course of action” to protect public health.
Robert Nott and Tony Raap of The New Mexican contributed to this report.