Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham sounded a note of caution — and trumpeted another weapon — in the state’s fight against the novel coronavirus, noting its current efforts are not flattening the rate of new cases enough to slow the spread.
Officials said New Mexico continues to see an increase in the daily number of new cases, even outside the severely affected northwestern part of the state.
“I am still optimistic, but this data is critical because it indicates that we’re not doing as well as we could,” Lujan Grisham said Tuesday during a briefing broadcast on Facebook. “I cannot allow for a new normal to assume that we’re going to continue to have increased death rates in the state.”
The governor’s comments came as New Mexico nears the two-month mark of a March 11 state of emergency declaration. COVID-19, which has taken the lives of more than 70,000 Americans, has killed 162 people in the state, according to the Department of Health. More than 4,138 people have tested positive in New Mexico.
Lujan Grisham announced new public health measures Tuesday, ordering all restaurants and essential businesses operating in a retail space of at least 50,000 square feet to ensure by Wednesday their employees wear masks or other face coverings.
By Monday, all essential retail businesses must require employees to wear face coverings.
“We know this will unequivocally help us protect those consumers,” the governor said.
The governor also said New Mexico is going to use a portion of its funds from the federal coronavirus relief bill to offer incentive pay to child care workers. The incentive pay will come to $700 per month for full-time workers and $350 per month for part-time workers.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the state continues to see an increase in cases in the northwestern part of the state — home to a large number of Native Americans — adding it was “disturbing” that the number of new cases in the rest of the state was also still going up.
“We are not actually seeing that downward trend,” he said. “That is a problem for us in terms of containing the spread of the disease.”
He did say the northeastern and southeastern regions are “doing very well” in terms of flattening the curve of the spread. According to the state’s regional map, Santa Fe County is in the northeastern region.
But Scrase painted a sobering picture of the potential for virus-related deaths to escalate if residents don’t practice social-distancing measures.
The governor said it was not yet clear whether the state could enter “Phase One” of its plan to reopen the economy by May 15, when the current stay-at-home order is set to expire. She said that decision would depend on data regarding the rate of new cases.
As they have in recent days, state Republicans again sharply criticized the governor for not taking more steps to open the economy, and House GOP legislators said they have asked U.S. Attorney General William Barr to look into a possible violation of civil rights due to the state’s public health orders.
An April 29 letter sent to Barr by state House Republican Leader Jim Townsend suggests Lujan Grisham is one of “numerous governors” who are making decisions with what he called “almost dictatorial powers by intimidating people to stay at home.”
“The governor’s actions have made it clear that she will push in any way possible to test the limits of every New Mexican’s constitutional rights,” Townsend said in a statement. “If civil rights violations have occurred across our country as a result of these mandated closures, I have little doubt that New Mexico will unfortunately be in that mix.”
The governor again urged residents to practice social distancing and to wear face masks in public to help contain the virus’s spread. She said residents should not drop their protective guard until medical experts come up with a vaccine for the respiratory virus.
“You are protecting others from you, and the only way you can do that is to stay away from other individuals and to wear a mask,” Lujan Grisham said.
Speaking about concerns that the state’s assisted living centers are seeing a rise in positive test results, State Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said seven of those facilities have more than 10 confirmed cases, and another 23 have somewhere between one and 10.
The state is increasing its oversight and surveillance of those centers, Kunkel said.
The Department of Health also is focusing on prisons and jails, where advocates say staff members and inmates are susceptible to the virus because of the close quarters and lack of access to personal hygiene materials.
By May 13, the state aims to test all prison guards and staff and 25 percent of inmates, while ensuring new inmates are tested and undergo 14 days of isolation, Kunkel said.