Disappointment, understanding expressed over San Juan County exclusion from reopening

Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett said Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's decision to exempt San Juan County from an order relaxing business restrictions caught him off guard.

Mike Easterling
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON — An April 30 announcement by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that San Juan County would not see COVID-19-related restrictions on some business operations relaxed has been met with a mix of reactions from local elected officials.

Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett has been a strong proponent of the idea of easing some of the restrictions, especially the idea of allowing golf courses and state parks to reopen.

Those entities were, in fact, allowed to reopen at most locations throughout the state in the governor's modified public health order, but San Juan, McKinley and Cibola counties, where the number of new cases is still climbing rapidly, were exempted from the modification.

Duckett said that exemption caught him off guard.

"There was no information shared with us prior to the (governor's) press conference or the release of that information to the public that indicated we would be exempt from this order," he said. "We had no idea."

Farmington mayor 'disappointed'

The mayor said that development was especially disappointing, given the fact that he and other elected officials had been included in a two-hour phone call with the governor's chief of staff before the press conference, and it was his understanding the governor wanted to modify her order on a statewide basis.

Duckett said he believed every community in the state was going to be allowed to open its golf courses and state parks, and that some previously closed businesses would be allowed to offer curbside pickup.

Nate Duckett

"We're disappointed," he said, but he acknowledged the governor likely has seen some public health data that led her to conclude the three counties should be made exempt from her order. He said if that is the case, he hopes to have that data made available to him.

MORE:San Juan County excluded from order relaxing COVID-19 business restrictions

Duckett said he had hoped the governor would recognize Farmington's status as a regional shopping hub for up to 300,000 people and allow the city to mirror the easing of restrictions on business operations that Colorado has implemented, incentivizing shoppers to continue to spend their money here. He now fears that northwest New Mexico residents will travel across the state line to do business in southwest Colorado instead.

"We serve four states here," he said, emphasizing Farmington's unique commercial status. "All those things need to be taken into account here."

Duckett said he shares the governor's passion for keeping New Mexicans safe from the spread of the virus, and he said he would continue to seek clarification and information from her office about what San Juan County needs to do to be able to take the first step toward a broader reopening of its economy.

"This small opening, in my opinion, was going to be a mental lift," he said.

But he said it's clear the governor did not think adequate progress toward containing the virus has been made in the three counties she targeted for the exemption.

"In order for us to get just to the starting line, we're going to have to be more vigilant," Duckett said.

'The numbers don't look that good'

Other local elected officials were more understanding of the governor's action, even though they were disappointed by the San Juan County exemption.

"It's always kind of a double-edge sword or bittersweet or however you want to word it," Aztec Mayor Victor Snover said, expressing his reaction to the governor's announcement. "My heart goes out to all the business owners who are struggling, but I think with the spike in cases (the county is experiencing), it was probably the smartest thing right now."

Victor Snover

Snover noted the county is not far from being able to reach the kind of containment figures the governor has indicated she would like to see, and he said that gives residents a tangible goal to shoot for.

"But we're not quite there yet," he said. "The numbers don't lie, and it's backed up with science."

Kirtland Mayor Tom Wethington also said he could grasp the governor's reasoning.

"I wish it was better news, to be honest, but when you look at the statistics here in this area, I understand," he said.

Wethington said he was halfway expecting the governor to lift some of the restrictions on business operations for all of New Mexico, but he recognized the severity of the situation here might cause Lujan Grisham to treat some counties differently.

"The numbers don't look that good for our part of the state," he said.

MORE:Latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Snover said he had anticipated the governor would issue a blanket relaxation of some of the restrictions, but he knew the situation here might not allow for that.

"I was concerned because of our numbers here," he said. "But I support what the governor's doing."

He said elected officials throughout the state face a difficult task in trying to decide on an appropriate course of action during the pandemic. Snover said it is very hard to balance the need to keep residents safe with the desire to resume greater economic activity.

"I challenge anybody to be in that chair and to do an equal or better job than (the governor) does," he said, adding that he wished to commend elected officials across the state for doing the best they can under difficult circumstances.

State Rep. Rod Montoya, R-Farmington, and Bloomfield Mayor Cynthia Atencio did not respond to calls from The Daily Times seeking comment.

Mike Easterling can be reached at 505-564-4610 or measterling@daily-times.com.