Two New Mexico agencies have created a voluntary testing and contact-tracing program for essential businesses — including grocery stores — to prevent 14-day closures triggered by having four employees test positive for the coronavirus in a two-week period.
The program also creates a path for businesses ordered to close to restart operations sooner than 14 days, a critical development as Thanksgiving-week shoppers have stood in long lines to get into stores that remained open.
The change was even noted on the Senate floor Tuesday during the special session of the New Mexico Legislature, where Sen. Gay Kernan of Hobbs lauded both stores and the state Environment Department for coming up with a solution.
Once a business signs the agreement and meets the requirements — including 100 percent employee testing — it can stay open if four or more employees test positive, or reopen if it was shut down, Department of Health officials said.
Essential businesses must conduct regular coronavirus testing among staff as well as assist in contact tracing under an agreement with the state’s Health and Environment departments. If employees test positive from these tests, the results will not count toward the 14-day closure mandated in the current public health order.
“It’s a fairly easy agreement,” Environment Secretary James Kenney said. “You develop your plan and you’re in.”
One of the first businesses to participate in the program is the Smith’s Food & Drug on Cerrillos Road, which allowed customers back into store at 2 p.m. Tuesday — six days ahead of its scheduled Dec. 2 reopening date.
Other stores that could take advantage of the program are the Walmart Supercenter on Herrera Drive, which is scheduled to remain closed until Dec. 2, and the Target on Zafarano Road, which was shut down until Saturday. Both stores would miss the busy Thanksgiving week and Black Friday.
A Walmart spokesman said the company has entered into an agreement to test all of its New Mexico employees twice a month and is reviewing the state’s new program.
“New Mexico has been hit hard by the virus, and we want to continue partnering with the state to do our part,” said Charles Crowson, a Walmart spokesman. “We’re working to help identify asymptomatic workers so that they can stay home, with pay, for up to two weeks.”
The program also could enable Whole Foods on Cerrillos Road to avoid temporarily closing. The store appeared Tuesday on the Environment Department’s Watch List with four reports of coronavirus among employees in the last 14 days.
“Whenever and wherever safe, we certainly want stores to be able to provide essential items to New Mexicans,” said Marisa Maez, a Health Department spokeswoman.
Cases of COVID-19 at the area’s larger stores were part of a record spike last week. Santa Fe County had 53 reports from businesses Nov. 18 of employees testing positive, the most in a single day.
Aubriana Martindale, a spokeswoman for Kroger, the parent company of Smith’s, confirmed the reopening of the Cerrillos Road store in Santa Fe. The Health Department also confirmed Smith’s had been given approval to open.
“We are working with Smith’s on issuing the contract,” spokesman James Walton said Tuesday. “In the meantime, they tested 100 percent of their workforce since being closed.”
Guidelines for the new program call for participating businesses to test all their employees every two weeks. The tests must be conducted within two consecutive days.
Areas where an infected employee worked in the previous five days must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected.
Kenney said state officials have met with retail and grocery associations to inform them about the program. Major store chains such as Target, Walmart and Whole Foods knew it was coming, he said.
He said the goal is to empower businesses to stay open, especially during the holiday season.
“I would expect all the retailers … to want to take advantage of it,” Kenney said.