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New Mexico Republicans, Democrats spar on business restrictions amid coronavirus pandemic

San Juan County reports five new coronavirus-related deaths

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times
Aztec Feed and Supply remains open, Thursday, March 19, 2020, in downtown Aztec.
  • Brian Egolf said decisions must be based on science.
  • A northern New Mexico mayor warned that the restrictions will have reverberating consequences.
  • New Mexico has 1,345 coronavirus cases.

AZTEC — In what New Mexico Speaker of the House Brian Egolf described as the first political day of the coronavirus response, the state Republican Party called for the governor to lift some of the restrictions she has placed on small businesses.

The call came one day after the state reported its highest number of coronavirus-related deaths since the pandemic began. Six deaths were reported on Easter Sunday, including one San Juan County resident.

State reports five new San Juan County coronavirus-related deaths 

The governor's office announced five additional deaths on April 13. All five of them were San Juan County residents who were hospitalized and had underlying medical conditions, according to the press release. They ranged in age from in their 40s to in their 80s. There have now been seven coronavirus-related deaths in San Juan County and 31 in New Mexico.

House Speaker Brian Egolf, D-Santa Fe, speaks, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 during a Job Creation Listening Tour at San Juan College School of Energy in Farmington.

The number of cases of coronavirus increased statewide by 107 people on April 13, according to a press release from the governor's office. There are now 1,345 people statewide who have tested positive for the virus and 304 people have recovered.

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The 107 new cases announced on April 13 included 23 new cases in San Juan County. There are now 173 San Juan County residents who have tested positive for COVID-19.

The restrictions in place are intended to reduce the number of people who contract COVID-19 and prevent the cases from overwhelming the medical facilities.

Republicans say small businesses have been hurt more than big box stores

But Republican Chairman Steve Pearce said small businesses have been disproportionately impacted and people are now crowding into big box stores.

“We are asking for just a healthy dose of common sense and uncommon courage,” Pearce said during a Zoom press conference on April 13.

Steve Pearce speaks to PESCO employees in October 2018 in Farmington.

Republicans say the orders restricting certain businesses favor large, box stores over the Main Street mom and pop shops. And they said some parts of the state should be treated differently due to their rural nature and low case numbers.

Pearce was not clear on what the Republican Party would like to see, but there were a few suggestions, including allowing some small businesses currently deemed non-essential to reopen at 20% capacity.

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House Minority Leader Rep. Jim Townsend, R-Artesia, suggested allowing hotels, motels and other lodging industries in the southeast area of the state to continue operating at normal capacity, because they often house oil field workers. He said the southeast portion of the state has not seen large numbers of coronavirus cases.

The counties he represents — Eddy, Chaves and Otero — are reporting seven, 19 and three cases respectively or a total of 29 cases among the three counties.

Downtown streets were mostly empty on March 24, 2020 as nonessential businesses stayed closed under orders from the governor. State Republican leaders are calling for a relaxation of some of those closures.

Several Republicans suggested different regulations for rural areas or areas with low case counts. In response, Egolf said rural areas, especially Native American communities, have higher proportions of coronavirus cases than some other parts of the state.

Egolf stresses importance of science-based decisions

"I think it's very important that the state government and the people of New Mexico continue to put science first," said Egolf, a Democratic Party politician from Santa Fe, during a Zoom press conference following the Republican's press conference. 

He said the state is not targeting small businesses. He said businesses that are deemed essential can stay open as long as they practice the social distancing requirements, regardless of size. He gave the example of hardware stores.

“There are truly life and death consequences to the decisions that we are making,” Egolf said, stressing that the decisions being made must be based on scientific evidence.

Coronavirus::Here are the latest COVID-19 updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Egolf said the number of people who will die due to the pandemic is determined by how well people adhere to social distancing and the guidelines from the state health department.

He said small businesses owners will receive financial assistance, and people who lose their jobs will see additional unemployment benefits.

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Española mayor says the impacts will have lasting effects

Still, Republicans warned that the restrictions will have reverberating effects that last beyond the pandemic.

“This situation will create a greater chasm between the haves and the have nots,” Española Mayor Javier Sanchez warned.

He said locally-owned businesses will close, and people in rural areas will be forced to move to cities in search of job opportunities.

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“I know that staying home saves lives, but I equally understand that doing so can also cost lives as well,” Sanchez said.

He said that poverty and changes in the labor economy will also have dire impacts on New Mexicans.

"We have a responsibility to ensure the physical safety of our citizens," Sanchez said. "We certainly recognize that. But equally important and commensurate with that physical safety is ensuring the financial and economic safety of everyone as well."

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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