SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico is giving the green light for nonessential businesses including retailers and many services to reopen on Saturday at limited capacity, while ordering that face masks be worn in public with few exceptions to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a news videoconference Wednesday that a new public health order will allow businesses to reopen at 25% of building occupancy limits. Large retailers can attend to 20% of maximum capacity set under fire safety regulations.
New Mexico health officials cautioned that infections among children are surging, complicating efforts to reopen the economy and provide summer recreation programs. Lujan Grisham referred to children as potential “super-spreaders” of COVID-19.
Strict limits on nonessential business will remain in place in northwestern New Mexico, which includes a portion of the vast Navajo Nation.
Human Services Secretary David Scrase said average daily infections in the northwest of the state, including McKinley and San Juan counties, have declined slightly in recent days. But those two counties still accounted on Wednesday for 109 out of 155 newly confirmed infections and eight out of 12 deaths statewide.
Lujan Grisham said the state was on target to potentially open dine-in restaurant service in early June. She said safety concerns are making it difficult to allow hair salons and gyms anytime soon. No date has been set for public schools to reconvene.
Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce said he believes the easing of business restrictions is arriving too late for many small businesses to survive, and he urged the governor to speed up relief from onerous restrictions. He deferred to health officials on the need for face coverings in public.
Lujan Grisham said that the state secretary of health is in negotiations to have a “qualified hospital administrator” take the reins of day-to-day operations at Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital in Gallup, where medical staff last week held a street protest to complain of inadequate staffing and urge hospital CEO David Conejo to resign.
She said the negotiations are designed to avoid protracted litigation or receivership proceedings.
About 17 nurses were cut from the Rehoboth hospital workforce in March as the pandemic bore down on New Mexico, and at least 32 staff have tested positive for the virus, according to the hospital’s chief medical officer and other hospital officials.
Those events and the departure last week of the hospital’s pulmonologist have limited its ability to treat COVID-19 patients, as people with acute respiratory symptoms are transported to Albuquerque facilities. Further details of management negotiations were unavailable.
Rehoboth McKinley Christian Hospital also is under mounting pressure to comply with a financial audit. State Auditor Brian Colón said he has given hospital officials a week to deliver additional financial documents to independent auditors and that public confidence was fading in management at the 60-bed hospital funded in part by property taxes.
“It’s gone from a deeply concerning issue to a crisis that isn’t being overstated when we say that it’s a matter of life and death,” said Colón, who led a conference call Tuesday involving Conejo, officials from McKinley County and the hospital board of trustees.
Conejo said nothing of negotiations with the Health Department on Wednesday as he defended his leadership during the health crisis he described as a “perfect storm.” He says surgical staff and hospital trustees signed off on workforce reductions in March.
The state has confirmed 231 deaths and more than 5,300 infections. Testing was offered this week to the state’s entire public and private workforce for any reason, and officials are encouraging multiple tests for people who fear exposure or sense symptoms.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
This version corrects that the state is unlikely to reopen dine-in restaurant service until early June..