ALBUQUERQUE – New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Tuesday unveiled more requirements for businesses after a string of record-breaking daily case counts prompted renewed restrictions just last week.
Starting Friday, restaurants, breweries, retail stores, gyms and other businesses are now required to close for two weeks if they have more than four separate incidents of COVID-19 among employees within a 14-day period. Those businesses that have had at least two outbreaks will be listed on the state’s new watch list.
Restaurants that want to continue offering limited indoor dining must also complete specific training and keep a log of customers for at least three weeks. Retail stores must close by 10 p.m., and state-operated museums and historical sites will be closed until further notice.
Lujan Grisham said the restrictions are not meant to punish businesses but rather curb what has become one of the highest rates of spread in the U.S. New Mexico on Tuesday reported an additional 599 cases, bringing the total to nearly 37,900 since the pandemic began. Another seven deaths were reported, and hospitalizations have increased nearly 90% over the last two weeks.
“We don’t have much time,” the governor said during a briefing. “If we don’t attack and snuff out the virus right now by working collectively with businesses and each other, then the virus will win and it leaves us very little opportunity to save lives and to keep our health systems from being overrun.”
Despite having some of the strictest rules in the country, Lujan Grisham’s administration has been struggling in recent weeks with a surge in cases and increases in transmission and positivity rates. The governor said she believes the exponential increase is the result of people letting their guard down and not taking precautions.
The Republican Party of New Mexico called the latest requirements another attack on businesses, saying the Democratic governor’s policies during the pandemic have led to a collapsed economy, tens of thousands of job losses and hundreds of permanently shuttered restaurants.
“Locking down New Mexico more is not the answer,” party chairman Steve Pearce said, suggesting that the governor’s rules were arbitrary.
Under the state’s rapid response program, officials responded to more than 830 businesses during the past week. That marked a six-fold increase over the last month. Businesses on the watch list include places such as hospitals, medical marijuana operations, law firms, car dealerships, grocery stores and gas stations.
Sandia National Laboratories is among them. The state’s Occupational Health and Safety Bureau has opened an investigation of the lab after receiving a complaint about alleged violations of the state public health order.
A letter sent Monday by the bureau and obtained by The Associated Press alleges that Sandia failed to comply with the health order by not limiting operations to remote work to the greatest extent practicable to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The state claims employees were ordered to cease telework and report to work in-person.
The state is requiring the lab to inform all employees and contractors of the investigation. The lab also has been ordered to complete an internal investigation to identify the root cause of COVID-19 cases that occurred in the last two weeks for each employee and contractor who tested positive.
If the lab doesn’t comply, the state said it’s authorized to post a notice of imminent danger on lab property and assess civil penalties up to $134,904 per violation.
Lab spokeswoman Kristen Meub said the priority is keeping employees safe and healthy and that stringent safety measures already are in place.
“From the start of the pandemic through Oct. 15, the majority of Sandia COVID cases were acquired offsite and outside work hours,” Meub said. “As a result of our protective measures, such as safety protocols onsite, contact tracing has confirmed the vast majority of cases among Sandia employees was caused by community spread transmission away from the worksite.”
More than 100 workers at Sandia locations in New Mexico and California have tested positive since the start of the pandemic. The lab has more than 14,000 workers, with more than 12,000 of those located in New Mexico.
While the majority of employees work from home, Sandia officials say the lab has essential work that must be performed onsite to meet national security responsibilities. For those workers, the lab provides personal protective materials such as masks and sanitizer. Daily health checks are done before they’re allowed onsite.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.