ANGEL FIRE — As the state prepares to fully reopen its economy Thursday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said New Mexicans must remain on guard for the fast-moving delta variant that has raised new coronavirus fears around the country.
“If you’re not concerned about the variants, you are playing into that ‘COVID is over’ mentality,” Lujan Grisham said while touring the Angel Fire State Veterans Cemetery on Monday. “It’s a deadly virus, it’s not going to go away. This variant is serious.”
National health experts say the delta variant, which was first detected in India and is believed to be more transmissible and dangerous than others, is likely to break out in some communities where vaccination rates are low.
The state Department of Health reported Tuesday 18 New Mexicans were infected with the variant.
But the variant’s rise has officials in other parts of the country braced for new outbreaks. In California, Los Angeles County is strongly recommending residents wear masks indoors, regardless of vaccination status, as a precaution.
The governor said vaccination rates remain comparatively low in the southeastern part of the state. Eddy and Lea counties had vaccination rates under 40 percent and Roosevelt County was below 30 percent earlier this week, according to state Department of Health data. The rates are much higher in other parts of New Mexico, with Los Alamos County above 82 percent and Santa Fe County nearing 70 percent.
Lagging vaccination rates could be a concern come Thursday, as New Mexico plans to lift all pandemic-related occupancy restrictions on all forms of commercial activity and businesses across the state may once again operate at 100 percent of maximum capacity.
Governor’s Office spokesman Tripp Stelnicki wrote in an email Tuesday the state will release an updated public health order laying out the new plan Thursday.
He said at this point the state is not considering reengaging in restrictions, and Lujan Grisham said Monday one way to avoid any return to restrictions is to maintain some of the existing safety procedures.
“We’re not going to require it, but I think wearing masks inside in grocery stores and large gatherings is really important,” she said. “And if you’re not going to get vaccinated, you’ve got to wear a mask.
“The delta variant in particular,” she added, “is of significant concern.”
One veteran asked Lujan Grisham about the state’s coronavirus vaccination rate, expressing a concern it was not high enough. As of Tuesday, 61 percent, or 1,025,462 New Mexicans, had been fully vaccinated, based on state Department of Health data.
Lujan Grisham told the man she wants to get that number up to at least 70 percent, if not 75 percent.
“I’m not sure I can do it in every county,” she told the man.
It’s unclear how the state’s plan to open will affect businesses and customers. In Santa Fe, organizers of several outdoor summer markets already had announced plans to open this summer under previously set health restrictions.
As of Tuesday, some of those officials said a full reopening Thursday won’t alter those plans.
“Nothing has changed,” said Kim Peone, executive director of the Southwestern Association of Indian Art, which oversees the Santa Fe Indian Market, scheduled to run Aug. 21-22 on the Plaza. “We made all our plans based on where we were before the reopening plan.”
As such, the market will remain a fenced and ticketed affair to protect vendors and the public, she said. Ticket sales will be based on city fire department regulations regarding fenced public events, she said.
Stuart Ashman, CEO of the International Folk Art Market, said his group’s plans will remain the same, with timed entries to keep public participation to no more than 200 visitors at a time. He said 125 artists from 50 different countries have committed to take part.
Artists and volunteers at the market will have to wear masks and will receive coronavirus tests ahead of time, he said. All artists will be vaccinated, he said.
The Spanish Colonial Arts Society plans its annual Traditional Spanish Market the weekend of July 24-25 on the Plaza, according to Yvonne Gillespie, director of finance and logistics and primarily liaison for the market. The market will not hold a public preview or awards ceremony, however.
She said 82 adult and 23 youth artists will take part in the market. Market officials are encouraging adult artists to wear masks and are considering requiring youth artists to wear them, she said.
Lujan Grisham has faced continual criticism from Republican lawmakers, among others, for shutting down parts of the state’s economy once the first coronavirus cases were reported in New Mexico in March 2020.
On Monday, she defended her decisions, saying the state has held its own with vaccination rates and in efforts to stem the virus.
“I think it’s an unfair criticism and is politically motivated,” she said. “I feel good. We stayed the course and we’ve been methodical.”
Still, noting the thousands who’ve died from the virus, she said, “We lost too many New Mexicans.”