Buffeted by a rising infection rate and sandwiched between two states where COVID-19 is out of control, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham framed New Mexico’s fight against the virus in stark, unmistakable terms Wednesday.
If state residents take precautions — and take COVID-19 more seriously — she said New Mexico businesses have a chance to revive and schools can reopen this fall.
If they don’t, the state’s early successes in blunting the disease could evaporate — and worse, New Mexico could go the way of Texas and Arizona, both awash in COVID-19 cases.
Lujan Grisham laid down the gauntlet during a sobering, almost grim Facebook Live news conference Wednesday, for the first time turning to enforcement in a bid to dampen the resurgence of the novel coronavirus.
As the state prepares for the Fourth of July weekend, out-of-state visitors will now be required to quarantine for 14 days upon arrival in New Mexico, and they could face penalties if they don’t. Police also will begin fining people for not wearing face coverings.
“Now we’re going to do enforcement and hold people accountable,” the governor said. “We have to protect the kids who need to go to school.”
Additionally, the governor will put her plans to further reopen the economy on hold for a longer period, until at least July 15.
The ratcheting of public health restrictions came as officials reported a further rise in COVID-19 cases and said residents continued to flout public health instructions. The new rules were also announced the same day New Mexico reached 500 COVID-19 deaths.
New Mexico’s disease transmission rate has surged to 1.2, which is above the state’s target of 1.05, Human Services Secretary David Scrase said. All areas of the state are seeing increases, including those that haven’t usually had high rates, such as southeast New Mexico.
And the state has seen a 27 percent increase in cases among children over the past week.
“This is a problem,” Scrase said. “We’re seeing this growth in the spread rate.”
The state is now failing three of the six goals, called “gating criteria,” that it uses to determine when it can roll back health restrictions. In addition to the higher transmission rate, it’s taking longer than expected for contact tracing officials to reach out to people who test positive and their contacts.
But New Mexicans aren’t helping the cause, Lujan Grisham said, emphasizing several times that many aren’t wearing masks or social distancing.
“Far too many New Mexicans became too lax,” she said. “I’m disappointed that too many New Mexicans didn’t take this seriously.”
As a result, she said, state officials are cracking down. Police will “aggressively” enforce mask-wearing, issuing $100 citations to those who don’t use them. Businesses whose employees don’t use them will be charged with a misdemeanor and also will be fined $100.
All out-of-state visitors will be required to complete the 14-day quarantine regardless of how they enter the state, and officials will be asking hotels to help them enforce the rule.
The governor acknowledged the new restrictions likely will have a negative impact on the tourism industry, a key part of New Mexico’s economy. They also will limit people from coming to the state for work reasons.
“I hope it doesn’t create any more significant damage to the lodging industry, but it’s a risk,” Lujan Grisham said. “I recognize what that does to tourism and what that does to an industry that’s reliant on folks, but I don’t see a productive way without a 14-day quarantine.”
The governor’s comments left any questions unanswered in the Santa Fe hotel industry Wednesday evening. Rik Blyth, general manager at La Fonda on the Plaza, said his hotel has been supportive of all the governor’s public health restrictions but was unclear how hotels would enforce the quarantine requirement.
“Is it up to the hotels to barricade the doors?” Blyth said. “Are you supposed to ask everyone if they flew in or drove in? I don’t know how the hotels are expected to be enforcers of that.”
Blyth said La Fonda would inform its guests of the requirement but did not plan to act as enforcement officer with guests.
“It would put every business in a very uncomfortable position,” he said.
Paul Margetson, Hotel Santa Fe’s managing partner, said the restriction could spell the end of much of the tourism industry in the state while it’s in effect.
“Nobody’s going to come because I believe the general tourist comes for two or three days, not 14,” he said. “That’s the end of any visitors coming from out of state, potentially.”
Sam Gerberding, general manager at the Inn of the Governors, said he hadn’t had a chance to review the new order.
“I’ve not had time to digest it and it’s a real morsel to digest,” he said.
Lujan Grisham acknowledged enforcing the quarantine for visitors will be challenging, given the state cannot track everyone’s movement and will not go as far as to erect blockades at its borders.
New Mexico originally had been scheduled to take more steps to reopen the economy Wednesday, but officials put those plans on hold last week. Those steps, which include raising the limit on mass gatherings and allowing additional openings of businesses, will be further delayed.
The governor also raised the specter of potentially bringing back some already lifted shutdown orders if the COVID-19 case numbers don’t improve. That would include reenacting restrictions on indoor dining services and gyms, and reimposing previous occupancy limits at retail stores and churches.
“If we don’t want to be in those situations,” the governor said, “we have to show that we’re reversing the trend.”
She called the next 14 days “critical.”
Lujan Grisham suggested schools — which were given a reopening plan last week — might not be able to open their doors in August if the disease data continues to worsen.
Officials said there are multiple factors causing the increase in cases, citing the partial economic reopening, increased travel across state lines, more mobility within the state, as well as residents and businesses failing to use precautions.
For the week of June 21, 9 percent of newly reported positive cases were New Mexico residents who had traveled out of state. Another 9 percent of new cases were visitors who came into New Mexico from outside its borders.
“These are concerning trends,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are going in the wrong direction.”
The governor cited the case of a Santa Fe Applebee’s restaurant, where employees were told to work their shifts even though they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. They later tested positive for the virus.
“These businesses will be held accountable, get shut down,” the governor said.
Lujan Grisham said she recognizes residents are experiencing “isolation fatigue” after so many months under public health orders, but she said New Mexicans will not be allowed to participate in parades and urged them not to host family gatherings over the holiday weekend.
The state Department of Health reported 130 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, bringing the total to 12,276. Three more deaths were reported and 127 people are currently hospitalized.
In a bit of positive news, the state continues to have plenty of intensive care units available. Officials aim to keep the number of occupied ICU beds below 460 and only 263 are currently being used.
Still, Lujan Grisham said the health care system could become overburdened if numbers keep increasing.
“When you look at the seven-day rolling average, these are all incredibly concerning,” she said. “If we don’t get it back under control … we put our health care system at great jeopardy.”