SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is moving to a county-by-county system for responding to COVID-19 that allows local communities to shed some restrictions on mass gatherings, restaurant dining, attendance at religious services and some nonessential businesses — if the virus retreats.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced new details of the system as the nation braces for a potential new surge of infections related to Thanksgiving gatherings and travel. The approach, she said, aims to empower communities to work cohesively, incentivizing behavior, testing and tactics that limit transmission of the coronavirus.
“You want to have this incentivized approach where businesses get an opportunity to work with local leaders to move us forward,” Lujan Grisham said. “This can work for the state. … The community is going to have to really come together.”
At this point, only one of New Mexico’s 33 counties — Los Alamos County — would be eligible to shed some restrictions on gatherings and to resume indoor dining at restaurants, according to the state’s coronavirus dashboard. The new system is scheduled to take effect Wednesday.
The color-coded system for virus restrictions would rate counties with low rates of virus infection or positive test results as “yellow” or “green.”
Tight restrictions will continue in “red” counties with high rates of coronavirus infection and positive test outcomes.
On Wednesday, the state plans to universally lift some provisions of its two-week lockdown by restoring limited outdoor restaurant dining and allowing “close contact” businesses such as exercise gyms to reopen at 25% of capacity with up to 10 customers.
Lujan Grisham and Human Service Secretary David Scrase acknowledged that the state is confronting stark threats to its public health system, as high infection rates return to the northwest area of the state. In April and May, the virus rampaged through that region, where many structures lack full indoor plumbing and multi-generation households are commonplace.
In a statement, the state Republican Party said the governor was stoking false hope and that reopening for many counties would be months away under the new criteria.
The pandemic and companion health restrictions are taking a heavy toll on New Mexico’s economy and public education.
The state’s unemployment insurance fund is depleted and running on federal loans; lines are forming each day outside grocery stores due to capacity limits; students remain stuck at home learning online; and hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed.
Top officials with some of the state’s largest health care providers said Monday that hospitals are full and modeling shows capacity will continue to be surpassed over the coming weeks, despite the state’s lockdown on many businesses. The officials indicated that much of the increase in cases is not based on businesses being open but rather from family and friends gathering indoors.
Behavioral changes have to come from within, said Dr. Rohini McKee, chief quality and safety officer at University of New Mexico Hospital.
“We can shut down businesses temporarily to help reduce the spread, but it is changing those behaviors I think that’s going to make a big difference and keep our cases down,” she said.
Still, they urged caution if some counties are allowed to ease restrictions in the coming weeks, saying it wouldn’t take much for spread to ramp up again.
The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths in New Mexico from COVID-19 has increased over the past two weeks from 13.9 on Nov. 15 to 22.4 on Sunday, according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering.
The average of daily new cases has risen over the past two weeks from 1,331 to 1,932 on Sunday. Comparing seven-day averages of new cases smooths out anomalies in the data, including delays in test results.
State health officials on Monday reported 28 new virus-related deaths and 1,684 newly confirmed infections.
Last week, state lawmakers passed and Lujan Grisham signed a $330 million relief package aimed at helping out-of-work New Mexicans and certain businesses hit hard by the pandemic.
A former state health secretary and first-term Democratic governor, Lujan Grisham serves on the transition team of President-elect Joe Biden and is seen as a contender to lead the U.S. Health and Human Services Department.
Source: AP News