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.

(13) comments

Lee DiFiore

Certainly this is a step in the right direction. However, this is the latest health restriction issued by the state which has been quickly modified or rescinded. Anyone else think the people making these decisions are doing so without thinking them or their consequences through?

Chris Mechels

Basically, the Rapid Response is PR, and it seems legally questionable, as NMED has moved beyond the national OSHA guidance, and threatening fines seems a bit of bullying not backed up by law.

The Real Problem that the Rapid Response addressed; the incredible incompetence of the Dept of Health in reporting Covid cases, with long delays. Unable to fix the incompetence at DOH, the Governor and NMED went to the OSHA regime to force employers to report directly to NMED, thus bypassing the incompetent DOH.

The Governor is, of course, responsible for the DOH incompetence, for installing an incompetent DOH Secretary, and micro-managing the DOH from the Governor's office. The Guv was DOH Secretary, until Richardson fired her in 2007, and she continues to meddle there. History... Helps to understand why Scrase, not the DOH, is doing the Covid briefings, though his background is in gerontology. Only in New Mexico... does incompetence take so many bizarre forms.

Grace Perez

You certainly make a lot of allegations with very few (any?) facts to back them up.

Chris Mechels

To participate in this folly: join us at the EIB Rules Hearing on Dec 18th at 9AM, when the OSHA Rapid Response reporting is up for EIB discussion and action. The current reporting scheme expires on 4 December, so there will be a gap. Has the DOH overcome their incompetence, so the OSHA scheme is not required?? It should be a good show. Check the NMED website for details.

Khal Spencer

Wow. Its almost as though they all read my letter I sent on the 21st:

Dear Sen. Wirth, Rep. Egolf, and Santa Fe Governing Body

Re: https://www.abqjournal.com/1520054/closures-of-nm-groceries-raise-concerns.html

The Journal ran a story (link above) about multiple big box food stores on the S. side of Santa Fe being shut down for two weeks due to Covid cases at those locations. Recognizing that one doesn't want to encourage the already rapid spread, my concern is that with multiple stores shut, there are even fewer places to shop in what the Journal calls, even under normal conditions, a Food Desert.

It seems that the Health Dept. should be able to come up with a better solution to getting these stores back up and running in less than two weeks. How about more rapid and widespread testing of employees, IR thermometers when people get to work, and scaling back staffing where possible. Food is essential.

It doesn't take an imagination much more devious than mine to think that if enough food sources shut down, there will be a crisis on the South side if there is not one already such as panic buying, panic in general, long lines elsewhere, or shortages. I think the Senate and House Majority Leaders and the Governing Body should demand that DoH think outside the (big) box. That is, if you have not done so already. I see that only Councilor Abeyta was quoted.

Mike Johnson

[thumbup]

Chris Mechels

It was never clear WHY they were shutting store, and it still isn't. It felt like they were using OSHA, and NMED, to shut down stores, as fining them $5k wasn't working very well. The whole direction seems punitive, not leadership.

IF they needed to shut down to "super clean" the facility, I could buy that, but it seems the attention is on employees with Covid, not even customers with Covid, and using this OSHA scheme for enforcement.

I rather doubt they know what they're doing, as they never have. No masks became mandatory masks; compulsive washing gave way to masks; distancing is a joke, not observed. "Everybody should be tested" is really most people CAN'T get tested. The land of wishful thinking... and crazy making by the Guv aka Captain Queeg. Let's mutiny. BTW, I wear an N95 and suggest you do the same. That we can control.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup]

Emily Koyama

[thumbup][thumbup]

Jim Klukkert

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Grace Perez

Congratulations. As you may know, the employee rapid testing/contact tracing approach is growing due to great research by epidemiologist Michael Mina at Harvard.

Mike Johnson

OMG! I congratulate the NMED for actually listening, thinking, and doing something creative and helpful that is an incentive to businesses, instead of lectures, scolding, and finger wagging by the Guv. Thank you!

Jim Klukkert

[thumbup]

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