New Mexico reopens: Governor dropping pandemic restrictions on July 1

State sets ‘Opening Day’ in two weeks, continues campaign to increase vaccination rates

John R. Moses
Farmington Daily Times

FARMINGTON – The State of New Mexico announced Friday that the color-coded system used to determine the level of COVID-19 restrictions placed on the activities of citizens and businesses in counties across the state will end July 1.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's announcement of the rollback, which came via a news release on June 18, followed a frenzied state vaccination campaign that included a cash-prize lottery designed to get enough people vaccinated to meet the governor’s reopening goals. 

In April, the governor announced her intention to reopen the state once 60 percent of residents age 16 and up were fully vaccinated against the disease, aiming to hit the mark by the end of June.

While the state officially fell just short of the 60% goal health officials expect vaccination numbers due to arrive by Sunday will close that statistical gap.

That news that an "Opening Day" was scheduled by the state was greeted with some level of relief by two local officials.

“I’m glad she followed through on what she said,” Mayor Nate Duckett said on Friday of the governor’s announcement. “She set the playing field and we met the guidelines.”

Noting this county’s high vaccination numbers, Duckett said he suspects that the natural immunity received by those who recently had the virus in San Juan County probably helped the county pass the 60% mark a while ago.

San Juan County had reached a 61.7 percent vaccination rate by June 18, which County Manager Mike Stark noted is the ninth-best ranking in the state.

Mike Stark

“We felt our county has done its part,” he said, noting the county commissioners were recently briefed on the county’s successful vaccination program. “We have been pushing the message and encouraging people to get vaccinated.”

Stark, who was in the county’s emergency center the day the first case of COVID-19 was logged at San Juan Regional Medical Center early in 2020, said news of the reopening was anticipated. “This is the news we’ve been waiting for, for some time.”

State Senate Republican leaders on Friday afternoon  issued the following statement: “It’s about time.”

State wants the unvaccinated to mask up

While vaccinated New Mexicans haven’t had to wear a mask in public settings since May 14, it appears the state will keep asking unvaccinated people to wear masks. Compliance is voluntary. 

Previous travel restrictions and quarantine requirements had already been retired, and the state dropped capacity limits on congregations at places of worship in April.

The news release says the state “will continue to follow CDC guidance with respect to face-coverings: Masks will remain required for unvaccinated individuals, and businesses, workplaces and tribes may continue to require masks for employees, customers or visitors on the premises, regardless of vaccination status, at their discretion.”

County Manager Stark, like many others who follow public health policy, said he is waiting to see what the new public health order will say in detail specifically about mask usage.

The two-week period before the reopenings is meant to give those who received the vaccines most recently time for the vaccine to fully take effect, the state said in the news release.

Restrictions in individual businesses is up to the discretion of business owners.

“Businesses may still adopt and require additional precautions for employees and/or patrons, at their discretion, and are still advised to enact whatever social distancing and facemasking measures may be appropriate to ensure the health and safety of customers and staff, in accordance with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance,” the state noted in its release.

Restrictions on mass gatherings will also be gone as of July 1. Businesses, large events and organizations may operate at 100 percent of maximum capacity, whether indoor or outdoor. 

Close, but not 60%

The goal was a 60% vaccination rate across the state, and health officials say New Mexico achieved 59.4% by midday on June 18. Because data from Texas and federal sources is not expected until Sunday officials have decided there is a “margin of error” in the data that puts the state at or above the 60% threshold.

“Frankly, we need to be better than 60 percent fully vaccinated,” Lujan Grisham said in the news release. “The variants across the globe and in the U.S. present very serious risks to unvaccinated people, even young people. We all, each of us, have the power to stop the serious illnesses and deaths: Get your shot. It’s safe. It works. It’s that simple. Don't wait for COVID to infect you or someone you love and wish you'd decided differently."

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham

While she called this week “a particularly productive week for our vaccination efforts” she said there’s more work to be done to get eligible people vaccinated.

“I know some will say this day is late in coming. I sure wish we’d gotten here sooner,” the governor continued. “I said all along: Vaccines are the way out, getting shots gets us there quicker. We were always going to put health and safety first.”

Beware the variants

The state’s top health officials urged caution amid the good news.

“We will continue to work with vaccine providers in and outside of New Mexico to be sure that every single vaccination is counted,” Human Services Secretary David Scrase, M.D. said in the news release “We are grateful to all New Mexicans who have stepped up to receive their shots and who have called us to provide their data.”

Scrase said the state’s actual level of immunity maybe greater than 60% due to those who have had the virus and retain still some level of natural immunity.

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase is seen during a video news conference on Wednesday, April 21, 2021.

“For all practical purposes, we have met the governor’s 60 percent goal, and we need to keep up our efforts to increase vaccinations and enhance good public health practices throughout the summer,” Scrase said.

The big worry among health officials are variants.

“We are learning that just receiving the first of two vaccines in a series is not enough to protect you against some of the highly infectious variants,” Health Secretary Tracie Collins, M.D. said in the release. “So if you have had only one Pfizer or Moderna vaccination, please, schedule your booster shot today. And help us keep moving forward, and keep your family and your neighbors safe.”

New Mexico Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins listens during a video news conference on Wednesday, June 2, 2021.

Contact John R. Moses at 505-564-4624, or via email at jmoses@daily-times.com. Support local journalism with a digital subscription: http://bit.ly/2I6TU0e