SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health and education officials on Thursday provided a public update on the state’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, outlining a new emergency public health order and New Mexico’s preparation for a limited re-entry to in-person learning next month.
New Mexico’s gating criteria – a measurement of the public health data reflecting the incidence and spread of COVID-19 – show the state has seen success in suppressing the virus while also maintaining essential virus-response and health care resources over the course of the late summer. Although the overall COVID-19 infections in the 20-29 and 30-39 age groups remain higher than other age ranges, the state’s decreasing and steadying test positivity rate, average case counts and hospitalizations reflect increased adherence to important COVID-safe behaviors like consistent mask-wearing and avoiding groups and extended periods of contact with others, said Human Services Secretary David Scrase, M.D.
The secretary again issued words of caution about the devastating potential health effects of the virus and the imperative to maintain safe behavior. “COVID-19 can cause very, very serious illness in people of all ages, and we’ve got to take that seriously in all aspects of our lives,” Scrase said.
PUBLIC HEALTH ORDER
Pursuant to the state’s sustained progress on suppressing the spread of the virus in recent weeks, New Mexico will permit certain relaxations of occupancy restrictions while maintaining the essential public health framework for mitigating and responding to the incidence and spread of COVID-19.
The state’s revised emergency public health order is effective Saturday, Aug. 29 and incorporates the following adjustments:
- Houses of worship may operate at 40 percent of maximum occupancy of any enclosed building, an increase from 25 percent, in accordance with COVID-Safe Practices. Houses of worship may, as before, conduct services outdoors or provide services through audiovisual means.
- Food and drink establishments (including restaurants, breweries, wineries, distillers, cafes, coffee shops or other similar establishments) may provide indoor dining service at 25 percent of maximum occupancy, in accordance with COVID-Safe Practices.
- Food and drink establishments may continue to provide physically-distant outdoor dining options, carryout and delivery services, in accordance with COVID-Safe Practices. Tables – inside or outside – must be spaced at least six feet apart, and no more than six patrons are permitted at a single table.
- While museums with interactive and/or immersive displays, categorized as “close-contact recreational facilities,” must remain closed, museums with static displays may operate at 25 percent capacity.
- Mass gatherings of more than 10 individuals are prohibited.
The order is effective through Sept. 18. A signed version of the document will be disseminated Friday, Aug 28.
“New Mexicans ought to be very proud of the progress we’ve made all together, but we’ve got to remember progress in our fight against this virus does not mean we can let our guard down,” said Gov. Lujan Grisham. “A sense of complacency will once again elevate the dire potential health risks for New Mexico families, neighbors and communities. We will continue to do everything we can as a state to mitigate the spread of the virus and address the awful economic consequences of this pandemic.
“The virus is looking for opportunities to spread. We must continue to do everything we can to mitigate and eliminate those opportunities. We know the path to continued success by now: Wearing masks, avoiding groups, keeping physical distance and regularly washing our hands. At the end of the day, I can’t make New Mexicans stick to these safeguards. We’ve all got to make those decisions ourselves every day – and remember that our actions impact our friends, our families, workers and businesses in our communities and our entire state. More and more of us have been making those right decisions. Let’s keep it up.”
Public Education Secretary Ryan Stewart provided an update Thursday as the agency works alongside school districts and charter schools statewide to ensure comprehensive COVID-19 safety and response protocols are established before any district or charter can be approved to begin limited in-person learning for K-5 age groups after Labor Day.
The Public Education Department has set requirements for re-entry to a “hybrid” model of in-person and remote learning – meaning rotating cohorts of students could potentially attend in-person classes in small groups after Labor Day upon approval from the PED. Those requirements include that the state meet its gating criteria; that the school’s county meet gating criteria for the rate of new daily COVID-19 cases and test positivity; and that the Public Education Department approve the district or charter school’s individual re-entry plan, which must include COVID-Safe Practices for students and educators as well as provisions of personal protective equipment, cleaning procedures and rapid response procedures in the event of a positive COVID-19 case.
The Public Education Department has been receiving and reviewing re-entry proposals from districts across the state in anticipation of a possible shift to permissible limited in-person learning after Labor Day. At least 24 school districts and charter schools statewide, including Albuquerque Public Schools, have notified the Public Education Department that they plan to continue in an exclusively remote learning environment for at least the near-term future.
In the interim before Labor Day, in addition to outreach to local leaders and superintendents, the Public Education Department will continue to review re-entry proposals before formally approving districts seeking to begin classes for the K-5 age groups in a hybrid model (middle school and high school age groups would follow in a similar fashion if and when health conditions warrant). The agency will provide additional training for districts to ensure all schools are fully prepared to engage in any prospective rapid responses; and will finalize cleaning and sanitation protocols for districts and establish and refine enforcement and inspection protocols with the New Mexico Department of Health and other state agencies. PED will launch an anonymous portal where violations of COVID-Safe Practices can be reported.
“Our work has been to coordinate closely with school districts and local leaders to make sure we have strict and effective protocols to prevent positive cases and to make sure we can quickly respond to any positive cases that do occur,” Stewart said. “We have been preparing extensively and I’m confident we will execute. I’ve visited school districts and with educators and local stakeholders. We are all one community and our unequivocal priority – the safety and welfare of our children and school communities – is shared. We must also, to that end, ensure personal protective equipment is available. School districts across the state have already purchased more than 3.5 million masks, and PED and DHSEM will distribute another 700,000 in the next two weeks.
“This is all in service of making it possible for districts to make the case for an in-person learning environment this fall,” he added. “Of course, the virus has radically altered our lives, and that includes our public education system, and it’s an enormous strain on families, educators and children. We’ve got to step up to provide the best and safest circumstance for them. Our focus has been and will continue to be that we effectively deliver high-quality education to our kids during this pandemic with the health-first imperative that in-person learning can only happen if and when every single precaution for students, families and school communities is in place.”