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New Mexico governor hopes ‘pause’ will blunt virus surge

November 13, 2020 GMT
Grandfather Tony Gerlicz walks to a line to get a COVID-19 test at the Public Health Department testing site in Santa Fe, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Gerlicz said he's getting tested for the disease ahead of a trip to California to visit with his grandchildren. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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Grandfather Tony Gerlicz walks to a line to get a COVID-19 test at the Public Health Department testing site in Santa Fe, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Gerlicz said he's getting tested for the disease ahead of a trip to California to visit with his grandchildren. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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Grandfather Tony Gerlicz walks to a line to get a COVID-19 test at the Public Health Department testing site in Santa Fe, N.M., on Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020. Gerlicz said he's getting tested for the disease ahead of a trip to California to visit with his grandchildren. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — People are being asked to stay home and gyms, salons, golf courses and other nonessential businesses will have to close for two weeks under public health restrictions reimposed Friday by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19.

The Democratic governor said the state is at a breaking point and that a two-week pause will provide an opportunity to blunt the virus.

“We are in a life-or-death situation, and if we don’t act right now, we cannot preserve the lives, we can’t keep saving lives, and we will absolutely crush our current health care system and infrastructure,” she said.

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The emergency measures to rein in surging rates of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and deaths across New Mexico, which are also soaring nationwide, will take effect Monday and run through Thanksgiving. Existing mandates already prohibited gatherings of more than five people and required face coverings in public. Those remain in the new order.

Grocery stores, pharmacies, day cares, gas stations and other essential businesses can still operate. But they are being told to minimize operations and in-person staffing to the greatest extent possible. Restaurants may provide curbside pickup and delivery services, but on-site dining is prohibited.

Republicans criticized the shutdown decision. State GOP Chairman Steve Pearce pointed to those who have lost their jobs and called on the governor and her cabinet to give up their paychecks in the spirit of equity.

“Her two-week trial crackdown will continue to destroy our fragile economy and cause more pain and distress for New Mexicans,” Pearce said. “They are the ones who have lost their livelihoods and confidence in the governor’s decisions. The average working New Mexican is just trying to pay his bills and keep his family afloat. How can he do that now?”

New Mexico on Friday reported that COVID-19 cases have now topped 62,000 statewide since the pandemic began and deaths neared 1,200. That’s a day after it marked its highest daily count of confirmed cases. Health officials also noted that the number of hospitalizations has risen more than 200% over the last month.

Rising daily rates of COVID-19 also have derailed attempts at in-person schooling. The new order doesn’t require any additional school closures, though many districts in New Mexico and around the country are shutting down in-person learning because of the latest surge.

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The next legislative session also could be delayed. Lawmakers are sparring over whether to delay a session that traditionally starts in mid-January, potentially deferring Democratic initiatives on cannabis, abortion rights and education funding.

Legislative leaders are weighing whether to soldier on with the session in January by moving committee meetings to a spacious convention center to allow greater social distancing and accommodate public participation.

Lujan Grisham said lawmakers need to meet their constitutional requirements but should delay the vast majority of the legislative work because health risks will prohibit the public from fully participating in the the process. However, she plans to call a virtual special session soon to free up more resources to address the pandemic.

As part of reimposing the health restrictions, the state has developed a tiered county-by-county system that will be used to establish benchmarks for reopening when the public health order expires Nov. 30. The governor said the system will provide flexibility for counties as they are able to drive down infection rates and prevent community outbreaks.

State health officials have been trying to boost New Mexico’s testing capacity as a way to identify cases and curb spread. But Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said Friday that the state would have to more than double the number of tests being done daily to about 26,000 if it wanted to keep up. More than 1.3 million tests have been done so far.

In Santa Fe, Tony Gerlicz lined up Thursday to get a test before he and his wife visit their grandchildren in California around Thanksgiving. The line stretched about 200 cars, snaking up and down tight residential streets.

Gerlicz said the entire family is getting tests this week because “we want to put their minds at ease and ours as well.”

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.