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WED: State Relief Checks Begin Arriving, New Group Advocates For Shutttered Bars, + More

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New Mexico To Meet Deadline For Sending Out Relief Checks - By Susan Montoya Bryan and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press

Around 15,000 residents previously ineligible for pandemic stimulus checks have started receiving payments from the state. The group includes immigrants in the country without work authorization.

Officials with the New Mexico Human Services Department said the $465 relief payments began arriving this week via direct deposit or checks.

The Legislature allocated $5 million to the fund for those who hadn't received federal payments in April. Agency officials say they were able to identify an additional $2 million on top of that.

Drawing from unspent federal relief funds, New Mexico's relief package was part of a $330 million appropriation that included additional money for New Mexicans already on unemployment or whose benefits had run out. Funding also was earmarked for more COVID-19 testing and support for food banks.

While COVID-19 cases have been declining in New Mexico, the economic fallout from the pandemic continues. On Wednesday, state health officials reported 1,174 new COVID-19 cases and 40 additional deaths.

Report Details Impact Of Federal Stimulus In New MexicoAssociated Press

A report released Tuesday by Republican legislative leaders details how nearly $9.3 billion in initial federal stimulus money is being used in New Mexico.

The analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee shows that state agencies allocated more than $2.3 billion for the 2020 and 2021 fiscal years for public schools, higher education, health care and efforts to combat the virus.

Local governments, tribes, small businesses, housing authorities and individuals received almost $7 billion as part of efforts to keep people employed, provide additional unemployment benefits and preserve other services.

Republican Rep. Randy Crowder of Clovis, who requested the study, said the federal dollars have played an essential role in keeping New Mexico’s economy from facing a severe depression and have preventing budget shortfalls.

“These stimulus dollars have literally saved tens of thousands of jobs, kept our state’s healthcare delivery system afloat, and saved countless New Mexican lives,” he said.

State Officials Plan For More Vaccine DistributionAssociated Press

New Mexico health officials are planning for future rounds of vaccine distribution and have set up a new online portal for people to register for eventual vaccination.

Health Secretary Dr. Tracie Collins said during a briefing Tuesday that New Mexico is offering doses to health care workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities as part of the first phase.

Other groups will be able to schedule their vaccinations as the state receives more information about the number and timing of vaccine shipments in the coming weeks and months, she said.

The state has set up a registration app that enables New Mexicans to be notified when they qualify for the vaccine.

New Mexico State University announced Wednesday that it will help the Health Department distribute vaccines to the general public at its campuses throughout the state once doses become available.

The school already has lined up equipment and volunteers from the NMSU system and the Burrell College of Osteopathic Medicine to support the effort.

State health officials on Wednesday reported 1,174 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total to 133,242 since the pandemic began. There were also 40 additional deaths, pushing that total to 2,243.

The Department of Health has identified at least one positive COVID-19 case in residents and/or staff in the past month at 128 long-term care facilities around the state.

New Mexico Governor Says Coronavirus Poses No Threat For SantaAssociated Press

It's official, at least according to New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham: Santa Claus and his reindeer are immune to COVID-19 and can safely visit homes across the state.

Lujan Grisham's office on Wednesday announced that she had issued a proclamation assuring New Mexico children that health experts had determined the coronavirus poses no danger to Santa and his hoofed helpers.

As for the formalities, the proclamation designates Santa as an essential worker and exempts him from New Mexico's social distancing and travel requirements. Lujan Grisham added that she hopes everyone stays safe over the holidays.

New Organization To Represent Bars And Other VenuesAlbuquerque Journal, KUNM

A newly organized group says it will represent the interests of bars and entertainment venues in New Mexico that have been closed for most of 2020.

Matt Kennicott, a former public information officer with the state, is one of the organizers of the New Mexico Bar, Entertainment and Nightclub Association. He told the Albuquerque Journal bar owners have been severely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic and have not received much assistance.

Bars, indoor movie theaters and other event venues have been shuttered since early spring because of public health orders from the state. Under the state’s red-to-green system of gradually re-opening, they would remain closed even if an area reaches the green level.

In contrast, breweries and distilleries that serve food have been treated like restaurants under the public health orders.

Kennicott said bar owners face an additional burden because they must still pay annual state liquor license fees that range from $750 to $1300. The group is looking to get those suspended and may also push for other temporary changes to liquor laws in the upcoming legislative session.

Congress Passes Bill On Navajo Nation Water Rights In UtahSalt Lake Tribune, Associated Press

Congress has passed a long-awaited bill that would address water availability issues for residents living on the Navajo Nation in Utah who lack access to running water, a problem exacerbated by the pandemic.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Utah Navajo Water Rights Settlement Act was passed on Monday as part of a massive $2.3 trillion spending bill that includes $900 billion in coronavirus relief and a $1.4 trillion omnibus spending package.

The legislation will next head to President Donald Trump for his signature. The legislation would recognize the Navajo Nation's right to 81,500 acre feet of water from the Colorado River basin in Utah.

It would also settle the tribe's current and future water rights claims and provide $220 million to build much-needed water projects in San Juan County. The vast reservation stretches across Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

About 40% of the Navajo Nation homes in the county currently do not have access to running water and residents often fill containers at public taps or rely on water deliveries from volunteer organizations.

Travel Guide With 2021 Twist: Writers Laud American Places - By Beth J. Harpaz Associated Press, KUNM

If 2020 had been a normal year, travel experts would be offering year-end lists of great vacation spots for 2021 right now.

But Frommer's travel guidebook company says that felt irresponsible during the pandemic. Instead they invited 16 notable writers to describe places they think have helped shape and define America.

Selections range from Gloria Steinem writing about Serpent Mound Historical Site in Ohio to Jodi Picoult on the Black Heritage Trail in New Hampshire. David Sedaris describes the Little America Hotel in Salt Lake City and Cheryl Strayed writes about the Oregon coast.

Timothy Egan’s choice is Acoma Sky City in New Mexico, the traditional village of Acoma Pueblo. The mesa is nearly 400 feet high and Egan highlights it represents the continuity of life over centuries.

Egan writes it is the oldest, continuously inhabited place in the United States. He dubs it Plymouth Rock West where Spanish and Native cultures clashed.

The collection can be read free online at Frommers.

New Mexico Makes Push With At-Home COVID-19 Test Kits - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico is partnering with a national health care company to provide free, at-home COVID-19 test kits.

State health officials said Tuesday that the kits can be ordered via Vault Medical Services' website. All that's needed is an internet connection, email address and a photo.

Recipients can mail the sample back for processing after self-administering the test with a virtual testing supervisor. Results will be returned within 24 to 48 hours of being received by the lab.

State officials acknowledged the lack of broadband access around New Mexico and said the new at-home option is meant to bolster the in-person testing clinics that have been operating since the pandemic began.

The state also is launching a new registration app where people can sign up for vaccinations. Those who are not yet eligible will be notified when they are after pre-registering on the site. More than 14,000 shots have been administered to health care workers so far.

The state is now averaging more than 14,000 tests a day and that's expected to grow with the new program. In all, more than 1.8 million tests have been done since the beginning of the pandemic.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a statement that expanded testing will help drive down positivity rates because health officials can better understand the scope and spread of the virus.

The positivity rate is among the benchmarks the state considers when determining whether the risk level is decreasing and counties can begin to relax public health restrictions.

An early glitch on the Vault website asked for credit card information and charged over $100 for the tests, but officials said the problem was corrected.

Health officials reported an additional 1,272 confirmed cases Tuesday, pushing the statewide total since the pandemic began to more than 132,000. Another 23 deaths also were reported, bringing that tally to more than 2,200.

Top health officials said during a briefing that New Mexico appears to be on the downside of the latest surge as the seven-day rolling average of confirmed cases has been declining. While test positivity remains high, it's lower than it was just a couple of weeks ago.

New Mexico's US Attorney To Join Santa Fe Practice Associated Press

New Mexico's top federal prosecutor is stepping down as president Donald Trump prepares to leave office. U.S. Attorney John Anderson announced his resignation Tuesday effective just before midnight on Jan. 2.

He says he'll join a law firm in the Santa Fe area. Anderson was an assistant U.S. attorney in New Mexico for five years before joining Holland & Hart in Santa Fe in 2013.

Trump appointed him U.S. attorney in 2017 and he was confirmed by the Senate early the next year.

Attorney General William Barr says in a statement that Anderson's performance in office "brought great credit" upon himself and the Department of Justice.

Former Santa Fe Police Officer Sues City And Mayor Alleging Whistleblower RetaliationSanta Fe New Mexican, KUNM News

A former officer with the Santa Fe Police Dept. has filed a lawsuit against the city and its mayor alleging she was pushed out of the force after reporting possible timecard fraud and missing weapons following the buyback of community guns.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports retired Lt. Michele Williams filed a whistleblower complaint in state District Court earlier this month accusing the city of Santa Fe and Mayor Alan Webber of retaliation following her 2018 and 2019 reports. The retired officer says the city’s actions violated the Whistleblower Protection Act and put an end to her career in law enforcement.

Williams had worked for the police department in the state’s capital city for 19 years before retiring in late 2019.  

Williams’ lawsuit seeks damages, including lost wages and harm to her reputation.

A spokesperson for the city gave the New Mexican no comment on the allegations. The Santa Fe Police Dept. did not return the outlet’s request for comment.

New Mexico Utility Has Plan For Growing Electric Vehicle Use - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest electric provider has a plan for incentivizing the buildout of infrastructure that would be needed to bolster the use of electric vehicles in the expansive state where even gas stations can be few and far between.

The Public Service Co. of New Mexico filed the proposal with state regulators last week. Utility officials say it's the result of more than a year of research and community outreach.

The proposal includes customer rebates for charging infrastructure and charging during off-peak times.

If the Public Regulation Commission approves, the utility says a full program rollout could happen as early as 2022.

The application marks the first one filed by PNM under a 2019 law that requires public utilities to submit plans to the Public Regulation Commission by 2021 for how they will expand the infrastructure for electric transportation.

The law calls for regulators to take into account several factors, including how the plans will increase access to the use of electric vehicles by underserved communities and whether any reductions in pollution can be expected.

Utilities also can recover reasonable costs related to implementation of the plans through increases in customer rates. PNM estimates its program will cost close to $8.5 million over two years.

PNM currently owns and operates four free charging stations — two in Santa Fe, one at a visitor center in Silver City and another at an Albuquerque shopping mall.

In Santa Fe, the state on Monday announced the installation of 30 new charging stations for use by both government and private vehicles. The General Services Department oversaw the $1.5 million project and plans to ask the Legislature for another $1 million to continue its shift to electric vehicles.

Navajo Nation Reports 151 New Coronavirus Cases, 7 DeathsAssociated Press

The Navajo Nation is reporting 151 new coronavirus cases and seven more deaths from COVID-19.

The latest figures were reported Tuesday by the Navajo Department of Health for the reservation that extends into Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

The Navajo Nation has reported 755 deaths since the pandemic hit. The Health Department says the first doses of the recently approved vaccine made by Moderna have arrived at the Navajo Area Indian Health Service.

The Navajo Nation is in a three-week lockdown requiring all residents to stay home except for emergencies, shopping for essentials like food and medicine or traveling to an essential job.