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New Mexico GOP pushes back on COVID-19 business restrictions

April 14, 2020 GMT
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Closed stores are shown at a central plaza and shopping district amid a public health order that has closed down most retail stores and suspended dine-in restaurant service in Santa Fe, N.M., Friday, March 27, 2020. New Mexico Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Jen Schroer says the state's tourism industry will continue to suffer amid COVID-19 restrictions and vowed the state will do what it can to help hotels, tourist spots, and businesses recover once restrictions are lifted. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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Closed stores are shown at a central plaza and shopping district amid a public health order that has closed down most retail stores and suspended dine-in restaurant service in Santa Fe, N.M., Friday, March 27, 2020. New Mexico Cabinet Secretary for Tourism Jen Schroer says the state's tourism industry will continue to suffer amid COVID-19 restrictions and vowed the state will do what it can to help hotels, tourist spots, and businesses recover once restrictions are lifted. (AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The Republican Party urged New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Monday to use “common sense” and allow certain nonessential small businesses to reopen with some requirements for social distancing, putting a new partisan divide on display on responses to the coronavirus pandemic.

Speaking on a virtual press conference with small business owners, GOP Chair Steve Pearce said new restrictions are unfairly hurting small “mom and pop” shops while allowing big box stores like Walmart to continue operating.

Public health officials under the Democratic governor have suspended a variety of nonessential businesses by category through at least April 30 to slow the spread of the coronavirus and ensure health care facilities are not overwhelmed by a surge of patients.

Pearce said the precautions are too drastic and put small businesses in jeopardy of financial ruin, while at least one small business owner suggested restrictions should be adjusted based on local population densities and infection rates.

“Somewhere the Main Street owners of mom and pop stores in New Mexico need to be spoken for,” Pearce said.

Lujan Grisham has indicated she is working on a plan to eventually re-open the state economy and warned that premature changes risk a surge in infections.

“Any half-thought-out proposal about picking winners and losers and allowing partial closures ... will lead to more illnesses and more death,” Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett said in an email.

A list of essential businesses that can remain open includes industries that attend to health care, emergency services, law enforcement, food supplies, energy, construction, internet service, data centers, some manufacturing, and care for the indigent, elderly and young children whose parents work. Dine-in restaurant and bar service are prohibited.

Recent revisions to the restrictions placed new limits on the operation of liquor stores, while large retailers continue to sell alcohol.

Shelly Quartieri, owner of the Colfax Tavern & Diner in Maxwell, said she understood restrictions were needed, but felt they should not be imposed statewide in the same way.

“Social distancing should be based on population and cases,” said Quartieri, who recently was forced to lay off her husband. “It’s not a cookie-cutter world.”

Democratic House speaker Brian Egolf defended the state’s science-based approach to social distancing and business closures, while conceding that adjustments may be warranted at liquor stores and shuttered plant nurseries that help people grow their own food.

He noted that sparsely populated areas in the rural northwest of the state have the highest rates of COVID-19 infection — highlighting the life-or-death consequences of social distancing decisions even in remote areas.

“The whole point is to trim the economy down to only what is essential in order to slow the spread,” said Egolf, who said he’ll defer to state health experts.

Confirmed coronavirus cases climbed by 107 cases to 1,345 on Monday, with five new deaths. New infections were concentrated in the Navajo Nation region, with 48 new cases in McKinley County and 23 in San Juan County in the Four Corners zone.

In new signs of economic distress, the New Mexico-based startup company for immersive art installations known as Meow Wolf last week laid of about 200 employees and furloughed more than 50 more — idling more than half of its staff. The business has been awarded more than $1 million in state and city financial incentives aimed at creating jobs.

Jessica Carothers, 43, who owns three beauty salons in Albuquerque and supports Lujan Grisham’s measures, said she understands that small businesses want to reopen and the effects the closures are having on revenue.

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“Nobody wants to reopen more than I do,” Carothers said. “But I can’t in good conscience put my clients and employees at risk right now.”

Sandy Bobsen, founder of organic pet food supplier Marty’s Meals in Santa Fe that still does call-in sales, said that reopening the economy could spell disaster.

“I think it would be a greater hardship for everybody in the long run if we open too soon, and it started to spread,” she said.

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Contreras reported from Rio Rancho, New Mexico.