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THURS: Governor Puts Brakes On More Reopenings As COVID Cases Rise, + More

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham at June 25, 2020 briefing

Governor Puts Additional Openings On Hold As COVID Cases RiseAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said current restrictions on businesses because of the COVID-19 pandemic will remain in place for now.

The Albuquerque Journal reported that during a briefing Thursday, Lujan Grisham and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase said the transmission rate of the virus has climbed to 1.12. That means one person who is infected spreads it to 1.12 other people.

The state had been on a downward trend with the rate last week to less than 1.0. The governor took New Mexicans to task for not wearing masks and not following social distancing guidelines.

The state eased restrictions earlier this month on some segments of the economy, including allowing breweries, restaurants, gyms and salons to open at limited capacities.

Lujan Grisham said she will consider moving to the next phase of opening by July, but it depends on the virus’ rate of spread.

Arizona and Texas are facing major spikes in COVID-19 cases, and that includes parts of those states bordering New Mexico. Scrase says residents brought the virus back from a baseball tournament in Arizona and graduation parties in Texas.

COVID-19 outbreak reported at Otero County Prison Facility Associated Press

About 80% of inmates at the Otero County prison in southern New Mexico have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The outbreak started in early May when officials learned a staff member tested positive for COVID-19.

State Corrections Secretary Alisha Tafoya Lucero says more than 400 inmates tested positive and three have died. The prison also holds inmates serving time on federal convictions, mostly related to drugs.

There were 275 positive cases among those inmates. The percentage of federal prisoners infected with COVID-19 is unclear.

When the pandemic was declared, the American Civil Liberties Union and criminal defense attorneys began calling for the state to reduce inmate populations in hopes of preventing a potential outbreak.

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and the corrections secretary rejected that strategy.

Instead, the governor ordered the release of a small group of inmates who fit specific criteria and are within 30 days of their release dates. About 71 inmates have been released since April.

Officials reported 207 new COVID-19 cases in the state Thursday. That brings the total to 11,192. There were also five deaths for a total of 485.

Navajo Nation Reports 69 New Coronavirus Cases And 11 DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Department of Health has reported 69 new cases of coronavirus on the Navajo Nation with 11 more known deaths.

That pushes the total of positive COVID-19 cases on the reservation to 7,157 with the death toll at 347 as of Wednesday night.

Preliminary reports from 11 health care facilities indicate about 3,802 people have recovered from COVID-19 with one hospital report still pending.

Tribal health officials said 51,144 people have been tested so far.

The Navajo Nation stretches into northeastern Arizona, northwestern New Mexico and southeastern Utah.

New Mexico Official Called On To Resign Over Police Shooting - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

One of Albuquerque's most liberal city councilors who has made police reform part of his agenda is facing calls to resign over his 2004 shooting of a Black man as a Metropolitan Washington, D.C., police officer.

The left-leaning ProgressNow New Mexico demanded Thursday that Pat Davis step down from his council seat and other positions.

The call came following a blog post by former Albuquerque Chief Public Safety Officer Pete Dinelli that detailed a 2006 federal lawsuit filed by the African American man that Davis shot.

Davis, who is white, dismissed those calls and said the man he shot later pleaded guilty to firearms charges.

In a statement, the group said Davis' shooting of the man was "troubling" and it criticized "tough on crime" promises he made during his unsuccessful 2009 campaign for Bernalillo County sheriff.

"ProgressNow New Mexico finds it imperative to continue calling out racism when we see it and holding perpetrators accountable for their actions," said Alissa Barnes, executive director of the group. "No matter who that person is."

Davis, who is white, served as executive director of the group but left in 2017.

The demand for Davis to resign came amid nationwide anti-racism and police brutality protests that are pressuring cities to reform their police departments and change how officers treat Black residents.

According to the lawsuit, Davis violated the constitutional rights of Moses Bell when he shot him as Bell sat in a car.

A federal judge later dismissed the lawsuit.

Davis said he shot Bell during a traffic stop after he spotted a gun in the driver's hand and lunged into the car to grab it. Bell drove off as Davis shot him twice in the shoulder.

Davis said voters in two elections have sent him to the city council and that he has spoken honestly about the problematic training and culture of policing he encountered.

"At a time when we are at the precipice of long-overdue changes in policing and racial justice, I regret that we are being distracted by relitigating my past which is not only well documented but is core to my personal story and the reasons why I have dedicated my life to positive social change," Davis said in a statement.

As a councilor, Davis successfully pushed legislation that decriminalized marijuana in Albuquerque and opened formerly secret police internal affairs investigations to civilian oversight.

Virgin Galactic Marks Second Glide Flight Over New MexicoAssociated Press

Virgin Galactic is celebrating the second successful glide flight of its spaceship over Spaceport America in southern New Mexico.

The space tourism company announced the completion of the test flight Thursday. Unlike the first glide test in early May, the pilots flew at higher speeds to help evaluate the ship's systems and performance in preparation for the next stage of testing.

That will involve rocket-powered flights. While the company is in the midst of final testing and making modifications to the customer cabin, officials have yet to offer a date for the start of commercial flights.

Virgin Galactic is the anchor tenant of the taxpayer-financed Spaceport America — the world's first facility designed and built specifically for launching commercial passengers and payloads into suborbital space. The company now has close to 180 people working out of the desert outpost.

More than 600 customers from around the world have purchased tickets to be launched into the lower fringes of space where they can experience weightlessness and get a view of the Earth below. The suborbital flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before gliding to a landing.

In addition a few hundred people who have put down deposits for a ride with Virgin Galactic, more than 9,100 have registered their interest online. Company officials expect the interest to surpass the company's capacity for flights for a few years.

Fund Of Up To $630 Million For Jeffrey Epstein Victims Opens - By Jim Mustian and Larry Neumeister, Associated Press

A fund of up to $630 million set up for victims of the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein is open for business.

Over a dozen lawsuits against his estate said that women and teenage girls suffered sexual abuse, sometimes for years, from Epstein and his enablers at homes in Manhattan, the Virgin Islands, Paris, New Mexico and Florida.

The fund's administrator said Thursday that well over 70 women who say they were abused by Epstein when they were as young as 14 were expected to apply.

Administrator Jordana Feldman says the women will be applying for a cut of his estate. A judge in the Virgin Islands approved the fund this month. It compensates women abused by Epstein before New York federal prosecutors charged him last year with sex trafficking of women and girls in the early 2000s.

He'd already been convicted of charges in Florida state court over a decade ago.

The 66-year-old Epstein killed himself while awaiting trial in a Manhattan lockup last year.

New Mexico Launches New Anti-DWI Campaign With Mask TwistAssociated Press

New Mexico is launching a new anti-drunk driving campaign that also encourages people to wear face coverings and keep their distance from one another.

Officials say this will mark the first time the state uses animation in its "ENDWI" television spots and social media posts.

Transportation Secretary Mike Sandoval says alcohol sales increased when people started staying home due to the coronavirus pandemic and the concern is there could be an increase in impaired driving as the state opens and people began socializing.

Figures show there were 33 alcohol-related fatalities in New Mexico over the first five months of the year.

Tribe, Environmentalists Fight Rollback Of US Water Rule - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The nation's largest Native American tribe and several environmental groups are waging a legal challenge to a revised federal rule that lifts protections for many streams, creeks and wetlands across the U.S.

Critics say the rule, which took effect Monday, drastically reduces the number of waterways across the Navajo Nation and arid regions that are protected under the Clean Water Act.

The Navajo Nation and environmental groups filed complaints this week in federal court. Some groups contend New Mexico is disproportionately affected because of the large number of small streams in the state that flow only during wet times of the year.

The tribe filed its claim Monday in U.S. District Court in New Mexico. New Mexico was among the states that went to court in May seeking to keep the rule from taking effect.

Amigos Bravos, the New Mexico Acequia Association and the Gila Resources Information Project followed with their own appeal Tuesday and the Environmental Integrity Project filed a separate claim in Washington, D.C. on behalf of four other environmental groups.

The cases name the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers, the federal agencies in charge of administering aspects of the rule.

In adopting the change, federal officials have argued that the previous Obama-era rule imposed unnecessary burdens on property owners and businesses and that the change will bring regulatory certainty for farmers, homebuilders and landowners.

At the time, New Mexico Environment Secretary James Kenney warned that the rule would leave nearly 90% of the state's rivers and streams and about 40% of its wetlands without federal protection. He predicted that would "devastate New Mexico's scarce and limited water resources."

Arizona Starts Talks On Addressing Dwindling Colorado River - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Arizona is getting a jump start on what will be a yearslong process to address a dwindling but key water source in the U.S. West.

Several states rely on the Colorado River for drinking water and growing crops, including New Mexico. But climate change, drought and demand have taken a toll on the river that no longer can deliver what was promised in the 1920s.

The states have been operating under a set of guidelines approved in 2007. Those guidelines and an overlapping drought contingency plan will expire in 2026.

Arizona water officials are gathering Thursday to start talking about what comes next. Meanwhile, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation is reviewing the effectiveness of the 2007 guidelines. The report is expected later this year.

COVID-19 Spiking In New Mexico Prisons As State Nears 11,000 Cases – Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press, KUNM

The statewide total of COVID-19 infections in New Mexico is approaching 11,000 as health officials are reporting an additional 156 positive tests.

The numbers released Wednesday also show the death toll now stands at 480, including four new deaths related to the coronavirus.

The latest figures show Bernalillo County — the state's most populous county — had the highest number of new cases Wednesday, topping McKinley and San Juan counties. Those two more rural counties account for about half of the state's total cases.

There are now 701 cases at the Otero County Prison Facility, which holds state and federal detainees in southern New Mexico. The Santa Fe New Mexican reports close to 80% of inmates in state custody in that facility have now tested positive. State corrections officials said Wednesday that testing, cleaning, and quarantining efforts have all been ramped-up across the state’s prisons.  

32 federal detainees at the Torrance County Detention Facility have now tested positive. The Metropolitan Detention Center in Bernalillo County reported two officers and one inmate have tested positive for COVID-19.


Navajo Nation President: New Mexico Still Failing Students - By Cedar Attanasio. Associated Press/Report For America

The leader of one of the largest Native American tribes in the U.S. has called on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to end efforts against a court ruling ordering education improvements for members of his tribe and other vulnerable groups.

Wednesday's comments from Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez come ahead of a court hearing next week in which Lujan Grisham will ask a state judge to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit representing Native American and Hispanic plaintiffs.

In 2018, a judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, ordering the state to address inequality in funding and academic outcomes for low-income, Native American and Hispanic students —which account for about 80% of children.

The lawsuit — initially filed against Lujan Grisham's Republican predecessor Susana Martinez — threatens to wrestle control of policy away from the state Public Education Department and control of funding away from the state Legislature.

Lujan Grisham's administration argues in a motion to dismiss the lawsuit that the state has increased funding for education, that future changes will take years and that administration officials should not be micromanaged by court orders.

A judge will consider the request to dismiss the case at a hearing on Monday.

Solar Leads Options For Replacing New Mexico Power Plant - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Solar panels with the capacity to produce hundreds of megawatts of electricity and back-up battery storage systems would be installed in northwestern New Mexico to replace the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station under one alternative that will be considered by state regulators.

Hearing examiners with the Public Regulation Commission issued the recommendations Wednesday in a case that has been fraught with protests, political power struggles and legal battles.

The recommendations offer a starting point for the commission as it considers what mix of solar, battery storage and possibly natural gas it will require Public Service Co. of New Mexico to install to make up for what the utility will lose when it divests itself from the San Juan power plant in 2022.

The document states that New Mexico's new energy transition law puts more weight on environmental effects than on cost, so some of the options that include more renewable energy could end up costing ratepayers more.

Part of the consideration is where any new solar farms, gas-fired plants or battery systems would be located, as millions of dollars in taxes and other revenue that help fuel the local school district and other government services are expected to evaporate with the planned closure of San Juan.

The city of Farmington and others have been working to keep San Juan open as part of a proposed carbon-capture project. The U.S. Department of Energy recently awarded $2.7 million for an engineering study to further investigate the feasibility.

US Energy Department Fined $304K Over Waste Documentation Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

The U.S. Department of Energy has been fined $304,000 over missed deadlines in documenting waste shipments at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports that the New Mexico Environment Department cited the federal agency, the lab and the lab's contracted operator Triad National Security LLC for eight violations dating back to 2017.

The violations involved documentation deadlines missed by a year or more. All occurred under previous lab operator Los Alamos National Security LLC. Triad took over lab management in November 2018.

It isn't known whether the nuclear security administration plans to challenge the fine.

Navajo Nation Reports 43 New Coronavirus Cases And 1 Death Associated Press

The Navajo Department of Health has reported 43 new cases of coronavirus on the Navajo Nation with one more known death.

That pushes the total of positive COVID-19 cases to 7,088 with the death toll at 336 as of Tuesday night. Tribal officials say coronavirus related cases continue to decrease due to the Navajo Nation's daily curfew and requirement to wear a face mask.

The tribe also has resumed weekend lockdowns with businesses closed as the number of coronavirus cases off the reservation increases, most notably in Arizona.

Preliminary reports from 11 health care facilities indicate about 3,754 people have recovered from COVID-19 with one hospital report still pending.

Tribal health officials say 50,185 people have been tested so far. 

New Mexico Undersheriff, Others Charged Months After Brawl - Las Vegas Optic, Associated Press

A New Mexico undersheriff is facing charges stemming from a brawl at a Valentine's Day dance. 

The Las Vegas Optic reports San Miguel County Undersheriff Mike Padilla was charged with misdemeanor aggravated battery months after police say there was a fight involving two groups. 

Four others, including Padilla's wife and son, are also facing misdemeanor charges.

Court records show that Padilla was not arrested, but instead issued a summons, a practice that has become more common since the coronavirus outbreak.

Padilla's attorney, Marc Grano, says he is still reviewing the case.