New Mexico extends indoor mask mandate through Nov. 12 as COVID-19 cases plateau

State health department says overall compliance is high, but so is community spread

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

New Mexico's indoor mask mandate has been extended for another month as average daily cases remained at a plateau after this summer's spike, driven by the highly infectious delta variant. 

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's office announced Friday that the current mandate requiring masks to be worn indoors in public settings will remain in place through Nov. 12, unless it is extended again.

"While vaccines are the most effective method to prevent the spread of COVID-19, masks, social distancing, and self-isolation measures continue to be necessary to protect New Mexicans who are ineligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine or who choose not to receive a vaccine," the public health order states. 

Nancy Anderson looks for a bowl at the Empty Bowls of Las Cruces event at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church on Friday, Oct. 15, 2021.

The mask requirement was reinstated in August in a bid to slow community spread of the more contagious variant and blunt the impact of the latest spike on the state's hospital network, which, per hospital leaders and the state health department, have been on the brink of declaring crisis standards of care for several weeks. 

All individuals age 2 and up are required to wear a mask or cloth face covering indoors in public places unless eating or drinking, according to the health order. 

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In a statement, acting state Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase wrote, "Many of us just assume that if we develop a serious illness, there will be an ICU bed available for us. That has not been the case for every New Mexican over the past six weeks. It is not time to abandon basic precautions." 

Signage on the campus of New Mexico State University reminds the public of indoor masking mandates.

Hospitals with the heaviest loads, particular in the Albuquerque area, have been converting non-care spaces into operational areas and moving patients to hospitals around the state wherever regular and ICU beds are available, and in some cases to hospitals in neighboring states. 

The announcement, activated in a revised public health order executed Friday, extends the mask mandate deeper into flu season, for which the health department has been urging residents to get flu shots as well as COVID-19 inoculations. 

"Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing have proven to be simple and highly effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19," health department spokesperson David Morgan said. "Given the current status of COVID in the state, and as the temperatures drop and more people convene indoors, wearing masks in indoor settings is as important as ever."

The state Republican Party again reacted with hostility to the public health measures, with GOP chairman Steve Pearce complaining that the Democratic governor "has controlled New Mexicans’ lives throughout this pandemic, violating our rights and freedoms."

A sign in Mesilla Plaza asks people to wear a mask in Mesilla on Wednesday, May 19, 2021.

However, Morgan said overall compliance with masking among individuals and businesses was high, in the view of the health department, and not just because the order includes penalties of up to $5,000 per violation. 

"The threat of significant monetary penalties is part of the reason for this; but probably the biggest reason for it is just common sense," Morgan said. "COVID-19 spreads via water vapor that is expelled when people breathe and speak. Masks significantly reduce spread."

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Morgan said the department has pursued enforcement actions in some locations, such as Hope Christian School in Albuquerque in a case that is ongoing, and has issued reminders of the mask requirement to sites such as the Hyatt Regency Tamaya Resort and Spa at Santa Ana Pueblo and the Curry County Board of County Commissioners.

New Mexico is one of at least seven states with indoor masking mandates in some form, including Hawaii, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington, plus Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia and numerous local governments in the United States.

In the neighboring state of Texas, meanwhile, Gov. Greg Abbott enacted a statewide ban on mask mandates by school districts and municipalities in July. 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.