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New Mexico suspends consumer debt collection during pandemic

June 5, 2020 GMT
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, listens during a news conference in the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, Pool)
Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state as New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, left, listens during a news conference in the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, Pool)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The New Mexico Supreme Court is temporarily suspending consumer debt collection — such as garnishing wages or seizing assets — in response to the coronavirus pandemic and related economic downturn.

The court ordered the temporary suspension Friday in a new effort to alleviate economic hardship amid a surge in unemployment and uncertainties. The suspension takes effect Monday and does not pertain to business debts.

The decision took place as a COVID-19 outbreak raced through privately run prison facilities for state and federal inmates in Otero County, infecting 583 prisoners as of Friday.

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The Court said it took action “in response to the extraordinary circumstances presented by the current public health emergency.” Consideration was given to “protecting the due process rights of New Mexicans to claim exemptions and protect their assets from garnishment and execution as provided by law.”

“The current public health emergency has impacted the ability of many New Mexicans to appear in court, obtain representation, and avail themselves of self-help resources to claim exemptions from garnishment,” the order stated.

It was unclear how many consumer debt cases will be affected across the state. On the five-member court, Chief Justice Judith Nakamura alone voted against the order.

As businesses have shed jobs under a stay-at-home order, New Mexico’s unemployment rate increased to 11.3% in April, more than double the April 2019 rate.

The state is in the midst of a gradual economic reopening, allowing restaurants, shopping malls, gyms and hair salons to reopen at limited capacity. Masks are required in public with exceptions for exercise and eating.

State health officials reported 331 newly confirmed cororavirus infections on Friday, including 129 cases at the Otero County prison facilities, and four new deaths statewide.

There have been 8,672 cases in New Mexico, and 387 deaths have been linked to the virus.

McKinley County led the state in new infections with 77, followed by Doña Ana with 52.

Human Services Secretary David Scrase said the outbreak has significant implications for public health because prison staff come and go from the corrections facilities.

He also indicated Friday that a plan is being devised for public schools to reopen without waiting an extended period of time for an effective vaccine or other cure to the coronavirus.

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The state has canceled a five-week extension of the school year for tens of thousands of students from kindergarten through fifth grade. The program was a cornerstone of new state investments in public schools aimed at defusing a court ruling against the state for failing to provide adequate educational opportunities.

The state Public Education Department is encouraging school districts to find local funding sources to run their online summer school programs.

Scrase said long-distance learning is likely to be extended as an option for children from households that are especially vulnerable to the virus as well as older teachers. Public education officials are devising a safety strategy for resuming classes. The state’s largest public school district in Albuquerque has set Aug. 12 as a tentative restart date.

The state unveiled a new internet dashboard Friday that describes progress toward meeting six-point “gating criteria” to further reopen the economy. Health officials hope to achieve a decrease in the transmission rate, adequate daily testing, sufficient hospital capacity to treat the extremely ill and an expansive ability to trace confirmed infections quickly to people who may have been exposed.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause pneumonia and death.