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WED: State Eases Capacity Limits At Some Stores, State Stimulus Checks Begin Arriving, + More

Image by Tayeb MEZAHDIA from Pixabay

New Mexico Allows More People In Businesses In Cold WeatherAssociated Press

New Mexico officials are amending the state's public health order on the coronavirus to allow more people inside grocery stores and other essential businesses.

The governor's office made the announcement Wednesday, citing the recent frigid temperatures as a reason for the slight increase in capacity levels.

Waiting lines have been forming outside grocery stores and other retailers since Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham ordered capacity to be limited at establishments around the state as a way to curb the spread of COVID-19.

She has said the tough measures have helped to reduce new infections. However, deaths and hospitalizations related to the pandemic remain high.

Officials on Wednesday reported 1,816 new cases and 43 additional deaths. More than 2,000 New Mexicans have died since the pandemic began.

Still in effect is the state's color-coded system for classifying counties based on the rate of spread and setting benchmarks they must meet in order to begin easing restrictions. All but one of the New Mexico's 33 counties remain in the red high-risk category.

Under the change, grocery stores and other essential retailers will be allowed to operate at 25% of maximum occupancy if they are in the red zone. Previously, essential retail spaces could operate with either a limit on maximum occupancy or a specific number of customers at one time, whichever was smaller.

Capacity will incrementally increase as counties move up to yellow and green tiers. But some municipal leaders have acknowledged it could be months before more populated areas such as Albuquerque and Las Cruces see improvements.

New Mexicans Begin Receiving State Stimulus BenefitsAssociated Press

Thousands of residents in New Mexico who are collecting unemployment benefits have begun receiving an extra $1,200 state stimulus in their payments.

The payments are being made to about 130,000 people who qualified for benefits in late November and early December and to people who exhausted their benefits between Sept. 12 and Nov. 5.

About 12,000 payments were distributed Monday via paper checks, direct deposits or debit cards. More disbursements are scheduled Dec. 22 and Dec. 28.

The additional payments are part of the $330 million economic relief package passed Nov. 24 by the state Legislature to help residents and small-business owners who have struggled during the pandemic.  

Officials Hope Vaccine Is Turning Point In Fighting VirusAssociated Press

Total confirmed COVID-19 infections in New Mexico since the pandemic began have topped 122,550 and officials this week expressed hope that the first shipments of vaccinations to hospitals around the state marks the beginning of a turning point.

Frontline health care workers are the first in line to be vaccinated, followed by staff and residents at long-term care facilities. Plans have yet to be made for which groups of people will come next.

State officials confirmed that of the 18 shipments sent to New Mexico hospitals on Tuesday, one shipment of 75 doses had to be discarded after a digital device showed it overheated while being transported to a hospital in Clayton.

Officials said the problem could have been a malfunction of the device used to track the temperature rather than faulty packaging.

Matt Nerzig, a spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said the state's allocation planning takes into account such developments and the frontline workers in Clayton will still be able to get their first doses.

Largest Wind Farm In New Mexico To Begin Generating Power - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

Xcel Energy says work is done on the Sagamore Wind Project, and the turbines will go online at the end of the month near the New Mexico-Texas border.

Covering 100,000 acres, the wind farm is the largest in New Mexico and the second largest on the utility's eight-state system.

CEO and chairman Ben Fowke said during a virtual celebration that Sagamore will be a key asset for Xcel in its push to reach carbon-free electricity generation by 2050.

Xcel officials said the new wind farm will result in lower costs for customers and will provide hundreds of millions of dollars in lease payments and tax revenues over the next 25 years.

Utility officials said Sagamore caps a three-year effort to boost regional wind generating capacity by 1,250 megawatts.

While it doesn't have any immediate plans, Xcel hinted that it's next foray into renewable energy will likely involve solar. Company officials described New Mexico as ripe for large-scale photovoltaic development.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said aside from the economic benefits, Sagamore represents another step as the state looks to shift electricity generation from coal and natural gas to wind, solar and battery storage over the coming decades. A landmark energy law calls for utilities to be carbon-free by 2045.

Top New Mexico Health Official Hopeful About Vaccine Rollout - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The new state health chief says the arrival of vaccines in New Mexico marks a turning point and she's hopeful for a brighter day as people get vaccinated over the coming months.

Still, health Secretary Tracie Collins said Tuesday that while vaccination will prevent COVID-19 infection, there is more that needs to be learned about how effective inoculations will be in stemming transmission of the virus.

She says that means residents still need to wear masks, maintain social distancing, wash their hands often and keep up with other COVID-safe practices.

Tuesday marked Collins' second day at the helm of the state Health Department. As public health mandates remain in place, Collins said the state will balance vaccine distribution with the continued push for COVID-19 testing and options such as at-home testing.

New Mexico has seen its weekly rolling average of new infections decrease, but deaths remain high.

The statewide death toll since the pandemic began surpassed 2,000 on Tuesday as an additional 28 deaths were reported by state health officials. More than 20% of those deaths were reported in the past two weeks alone.

The first vaccine doses are going to frontline health care workers at medium to high risk of exposure as they work with COVID-19 patients. The next group will include staff and residents at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Collins said decisions are pending about which groups of people to vaccinate after that.

While vaccination is optional for health care workers, state officials have said they hope to get as many people inoculated as possible. The vaccine requires two doses, with the second coming three weeks after the first.

Navajo Nation Reports 160 New COVID-19 Cases, 5 More Deaths - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials on Tuesday reported 160 new COVID-19 cases and five more related deaths. 

In all, the tribe now has reported 19,929 coronavirus cases resulting in 727 deaths since the pandemic began. 

Health officials say more than 185,000 people on the reservation have been tested and nearly 11,000 have recovered from COVID-19. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 77 communities on the reservation still have uncontrolled spread of the coronavirus. 

Tribal officials have said nearly all intensive care unit beds on the reservation are being used as COVID-19 cases surge.

New Mexico Plans To Resume Jury Trials In February - Associated Press

New Mexico courts are scheduled to resume jury trials in February 2021 after a hiatus in response to surging coronavirus infections. 

The Administrative Office of the Courts announced the order Monday. 

The suspension of jury trials in November did not apply to grand juries that decide whether evidence warrants charges of criminal conduct. 

In a news release, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael E. Vigil said the state judiciary relies on an emergency response team to monitor pandemic risks. 

State courts have remained open throughout the pandemic as judges use video and telephone conferencing to carry out civil and criminal legal proceedings.

New Mexico wasn't alone in suspending jury trials. State court systems in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey and courts in Denver, Colorado, took similar precautions in November because of rising virus rates.

And courts from San Diego to Norfolk, Virginia, have had to delay jury selection for trials because too few people responded to jury duty summonses.

Education Lawsuit Demands Internet For New Mexico Students - By Cedar Attanasio Associated Press / Report For America

Lawyers representing Native American students say New Mexico is violating a 2018 court order in a landmark education case as attempts to boost internet access and provide learning devices are falling short.

The case covers 80% of the state's students, including Native Americans and those who are low-income or disabled.

Lawyers representing the students say educational opportunities would not have been as inadequate had the state complied with the court order and ensured access to technology for all students.

In a motion filed Tuesday, they asked a court to compel the state to provide laptops and internet to students who still lack them.

With in-person learning banned by state officials until mid-January and plans for hybrid learning scrapped for the vast majority of students earlier this year, the inability to access remote classes has been a challenge for many rural and low-income students, particularly Native American children living on tribal lands.

Education officials across the state's 89 school districts have purchased tens of thousands of laptops and worked with the governor and the Public Education Department to provide Wi-Fi hotspots in many areas during the pandemic.

In response to the motion, the Public Education Department highlighted state efforts to support increased internet access during the pandemic.

A spokeswoman pointed to the north central Peñasco school district mentioned in the motion, saying it has gone from having 50 families without internet access in August to just two.

But thousands of children are still offline, and an untold number have limited internet connectivity that doesn't allow them to upload or download video. Some students have relied on their parent's cellphone hotspots, which can run out of data or can't be left at home when the parent goes to work.

New Mexico Land Boss Ends Fresh Water Sales For Oil And GasAssociated Press

The New Mexico State Land Office is halting the practice of selling fresh water from state trust lands for use in oil and gas development.

Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard detailed the shift in policy in a letter issued Tuesday. She sent the letter to companies that hold easements that grant access to trust land for pumping fresh water.

Under the change, existing easements will not be renewed once they expire and no new easements will be issued.

The agency says the policy is aimed at encouraging the industry to use recycled or produced water given the scarcity of fresh resources in New Mexico.

The agency cited data reported by companies to FracFocus, a national registry, that indicated nearly 14.5 billion gallons of water were used for overall production in New Mexico in 2019, with recycled or produced water making up only a fraction of the total use.

According to the State Land Office, oil production on trust land in the Permian Basin is at an all-time high despite disruptions that resulted from a global price war earlier this year and the ongoing consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. That has resulted in the availability of more produced water.

Garcia Richard suggested that more intervention is needed from the state Legislature to address New Mexico's water issues and that the policy change within her agency marks a small step to help preserve fresh water resources.

New Mexico University Leader On Biden-Harris Transition Team Las Cruces Sun-News, Associated Press

New Mexico State University Chancellor Dan Arvizu has been chosen as part of the transition team for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

The Las Cruces Sun-News reported that Arvizu was approached to help the U.S. Department of Energy in the transition from the outgoing Trump administration to the Biden administration. He is also expected to review the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Arvizu said in his most recent university system-wide email that it is a volunteer position and is not associated with his university position.

Before Arvizu became chancellor in June 2018, he worked in the energy field at Bell Laboratories, now known as Nokia Bell Labs, and Sandia National Laboratories.

Arvizu also served as director of the Department of Energy's Renewable Energy Laboratory from January 2005 until his retirement in 2015.

He will be joined on the transition team by at least three other people who worked for the state of New Mexico.

Native American Film Producer/Actor Gets Prison In Rape CaseAssociated Press

Native American film producer and actor Redwolf Pope has been sentenced to four years in prison after being convicted of sexually assaulting a Seattle woman in New Mexico in 2017.

A jury found the 44-year-old Pope guilty of rape and voyeurism three months ago. He was sentenced Tuesday.

Prosecutors say Pope took photos and video of himself sexually assaulting an unconscious woman in a Santa Fe hotel room.

Pope was credited with about 2½ years of time served and will be required to register as a sex offender. 

Pope also faces rape charges in two cases in Seattle and will stand trial in that city after serving time for his conviction in New Mexico.

Officers Fatally Shoot Man In SUV During Barricade Situation Associated Press

Authorities say an armed man was fatally shot by law enforcement officers from three different agencies during a barricade situation stemming from an incident of domestic violence in the Farmington area on Monday.

The State Police said at least one San Juan County sheriff's deputy and officers from Farmington Police Department and the State Police shot a passenger in a parked SUV when he pointed a gun at the driver.

No identities were released. Authorities had stopped the vehicle which was sought in connection with a reported beating of a woman by her husband, who was armed, the State Police said.