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New Mexico governor touts progress on virus, draws criticism

March 3, 2021 GMT
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In this photo provided by the New Mexico Office of the Governor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a $330 million economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses and out-of-work New Mexicans while at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 in Santa Fe, N.M. (New Mexico Office of the Governor via AP)
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In this photo provided by the New Mexico Office of the Governor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a $330 million economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses and out-of-work New Mexicans while at the State Capitol, Wednesday, Nov. 25, 2020 in Santa Fe, N.M. (New Mexico Office of the Governor via AP)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday touted her administration’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, saying expansive lockdowns were necessary to keep COVID-19 at bay and that the state stepped up to provide direct economic relief for businesses and unemployed workers to ease the pain of what has been a “cruel hardship.”

But critics accuse the first-term Democratic governor of ignoring her own policies by hosting in-person meetings with members of her cabinet last year and spending thousands of dollars on groceries while joblessness remains high and businesses have yet to recover from a year of navigating some of the toughest restrictions in the U.S.

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The Republican Governors Association on Monday launched a week of digital ads targeting the governor. Top Republicans in New Mexico and commerce groups also have voiced concerns, saying the policies have forced many small businesses to close for good.

Lujan Grisham has repeatedly defended her public health order and acknowledged that spending on goods and services such as dry cleaning, tuna steaks, tequila and Wagyu beef over a six-month period in 2020 didn’t look good. Her office reiterated that Tuesday, saying she has “gone above and beyond” to model good public health behavior during the pandemic and that she hasn’t acted in a way that would violate the letter or spirit of the public health orders.

The governor during an appearance Tuesday on Washington Post Live said providing more resources to businesses will be key, and more investments will be needed to ensure economic opportunities don’t evaporate.

“Let’s own that businesses were lost, livelihoods were lost and diminished and the financial insecurity for far too many New Mexicans and far too many Americans is real, which is why the rescue plan is so critical to us,” she said.

Steve Pearce, chairman of the state Republican Party, said the governor in crafting the public health restrictions created a system that benefited out-of-state corporations. He said small local businesses have been left trying to catch up on loan payments and find ways to boost customer traffic.

“It’s been an unfortunate thing,” he said. “It was a choice made by the governor and maybe she thought she was doing right. I’ve never judged her intentions. All I can say is the outcome has been very bad for New Mexico and not a requirement of the pandemic.”

Even though some restrictions are being lifted now as counties reach the state’s benchmarks, Pearce said it will take years for some businesses to recover.

Lujan Grisham’s office said the governor’s decisions have been based on what she believes to be in the best interest of New Mexicans based on data and input from epidemiologists and public health experts.

Spread rates and the weekly rolling average of new COVID-19 infections have declined in New Mexico in recent weeks. The additional confirmed cases reported by state health officials Monday marked one of the lowest levels since September.

Coronavirus testing Monday at the state Capitol building resulted one positive result, triggering contact tracing and the quarantine of two people, according to Raúl Burciaga, director of the Legislature’s legal affairs and administrative office.

It was unclear whether a legislator tested positive. The Statehouse is closed to the public, with most legislative deliberations conducted online.

Lujan Grisham said vaccinations are playing a role in bringing infection numbers down but that the restrictions mandated by the public health order — including mask-wearing and limits on social gatherings — were still doing more to keep spread down.

She touted New Mexico’s vaccination rollout, saying it continues to be one of the top in country and the focus is on getting doses to vulnerable communities.

The plan is to funnel about one quarter of the state’s allocation to those most at risk based on socio-economic conditions, minority status and other factors. Lujan Grisham said addressing populations that have higher mortality rates and less access to health care will help save more lives and keep more people from being hospitalized.

The state expects those efforts to ramp up with the arrival this week of the Johnson & Johnson one-dose vaccine.

Data from the state shows more than 671,000 have registered to receive shots, while about 217,000 people have been fully vaccinated.