THURS: Governor Lauds Success Against Virus While Urging Caution, + More

Aug 27, 2020

New Mexico Eases Pandemic Restrictions As Virus RelentsAssociated Press

Health officials are relaxing a pandemic stay-at-home order in New Mexico to allow larger public gatherings of up to 10 people and provide limited access to museums with static displays, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Thursday.

Lujan Grisham and Human Services Secretary David Scrase likened the gradual reopening to slowly twisting a dimmer switch on a light fixture.

The new public health order goes into effect Saturday with previously announced changes that restore indoor restaurant dining service for the first time in six weeks and allow greater attendance at indoor religious services.

At the same time, the state's top education official announced that a post-Labor Day return to part-time classroom learning for elementary school students will be limited to counties with low average rates of COVID-19 infection and positivity rates on virus testing.

To reopen classrooms, counties must have fewer than 8 new daily cases on average per 100,000 residents, and positivity rate under 5%. The statewide's average positivity rate is 2.1% — the lowest in the western U.S.

If applied today, the threshold would put public school classrooms off limits in eight counties clustered in the southeast of the state and the far southwestern boot-heel region. The southeast of the state has been a cradle of dissent concerning state public health orders on COVID-19.

About one-fourth of school districts, including one of the nation's largest in Albuquerque, already have postponed in-person classroom learning until at least January.

The Public Education Department is reviewing re-entry plans that can introduce some classroom learning Sept. 8 on a rotating basis for K-5 students.

The state provides a universal opt-out for families who are not yet comfortable with returning their children to classrooms. Stewart said schools that seek to reopen classrooms must provide effective plans to rapidly respond to virus infections by quickly closing areas, tracing exposure, cleaning and eventually reopening again.

Lujan Grisham said her administration will defer to school districts on whether to resume classroom learning until there is an effective vaccine.

Public school classrooms currently are closed across the state as students follow lessons from home using remote technology that runs the gamut from live video-conference meetings to telephone calls.

Navajo Nation Wants More Say Over Criminal Justice Matters - By Felicia Fonseca, Associated Press

Following the federal execution of one of its citizens, the Navajo Nation wants more say over criminal justice matters on its reservation in the U.S. Southwest.

Lezmond Mitchell, who is Navajo, was executed Wednesday at a federal prison in Indiana where he was being held. He was the only Native American on federal death row.

The Navajo Nation says the federal government violated the spirit of a law that allows tribes to decide whether to subject their citizens to the death penalty.

The Navajo Nation had asked President Donald Trump to reduce Mitchell's punishment to life in prison. As the execution neared, Trump took no action and courts declined to intervene.

The Navajo Nation said the situation highlights a need to restore tribes' ability to determine criminal justice matters on tribal land, especially when it concerns Native victims and Native perpetrators.

Jurisdiction now falls to a mix of agencies, including the tribe, that respond depending on the exact location of the crime and who is involved.

Tribal officials say they'll work with congressional leaders and advocacy groups to push for change.

Suspect In Santa Fe High Athlete Death To Be Tried As AdultAssociated Press

A 17-year-old suspect will face adult charges in the death of a former Santa Fe High School basketball player killed about a month ago, a judge has ruled.

First Judicial District Judge T. Glenn Ellington ruled Wednesday that Estevan Montoya would be charged with murder, negligent use of a handgun, unlawful possession of a handgun and tampering with evidence.

Fedonta "J.B." White died after being shot during a house party in Chupadero, north of Santa Fe, where several teenagers were allegedly drinking alcohol, prosecutors said.

A witness said during the hearing that he was inside the house trying to break up another fight when he heard a gunshot outside and that one his friends then said White had been shot.

Multiple witnesses testified against the suspected shooter, saying Montoya instigated the fight by approaching White.

Defense Attorney Dan Marlowe did not dispute who shot White but questioned who instigated the fight leading up to the shooting.

Montoya is being held at the San Juan County Juvenile Detention Facility.

Trump Sends In Agents As Albuquerque Struggles With Crime - By Russell Contreras and Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

President Donald Trump is seeking re-election on a tough-on-crime agenda and Albuquerque is one city he singles out for having high crime.

New Mexico's largest city is 10th in the nation for violent crime and ranks No. 2 for car thefts. Trump dispatched federal agents to the city last month, and federal officials say arrests are being made.

New Mexico Democrats have bristled at Trump's move, saying the city already is working with federal authorities on mandated police reforms. They blame Albuquerque crime on an officer shortage and the opioid epidemic.

Others say a judicial system revolving door puts repeat offenders back on the street.

Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller insists the city is making progress in addressing crime. He recently introduced the officials who will lead the city's new violence intervention program, saying it will help community members and law enforcement "find crucial common ground, build new relationships, and significantly reduce gun crime in their neighborhoods."

Keller and fellow Democratic politicians bristled at Trump's July move to send agents to Albuquerque. Pointing to the presence of federal authorities in Portland, Oregon, during protests there, they voiced concerns about extra officers in Albuquerque being used for political purposes.

U.S. Attorney John Anderson of New Mexico has defended the deployment, saying the agents are involved in what he called "classic crime-fighting."

The latest non-preliminary federal crime statistics from 2018 show that Albuquerque's crime rate was more than 3.5 times the national average. An Associated Press analysis of violent crime rates per 100,000 people put Albuquerque as No. 10 in the nation, just behind Stockton, California. Detroit was No. 1.

Judge Blocks Rule That Moves Relief Funds To Private Schools - By David Eggert Associated Press

A federal judge in California has blocked a rule that Michigan and seven other states said would unlawfully allow too much pandemic relief aid to be diverted from K-12 public schools to private ones.

The decision temporarily halts the U.S. government from implementing the rule in eights states, including New Mexico, as well as Washington, D.C. and school districts in four large cities.

Judge James Donato ruled late Wednesday. Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel says the money was meant to assist public schools most in need of financial support, but Education Secretary Betsy DeVos' policy "does the exact opposite."

Navajo Nation Reports 14 New COVID-19 Cases, 4 More DeathsAssociated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 14 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 with four additional deaths.

That brings the total number of people infected to 9,597 with the known death toll now at 498 as of Wednesday night.

Navajo Department of Health officials said 93,135 people have been tested for the coronavirus and 7,018 have recovered.

The Navajo Nation lifted its stay-at-home order on Aug. 16, but is asking residents to leave their homes only for emergencies or essential activities.

Much of the Navajo Nation has been closed since March as the coronavirus swept through the vast reservation that extends into New Mexico, Utah and Arizona.

The majority of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19 recover. For some people it causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough.

But for others who contract the virus, especially those who are older or have underlying health conditions, it can cause more severe illness and death.

Limited Indoor Dining To Resume For New Mexico Restaurants - By Susan Montoya Bryan And Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said Wednesday she will relax some public health mandates imposed because of the coronavirus, citing recent progress in slowing the outbreak in New Mexico.

Under the changes to be announced Thursday, limited indoor dining will be allowed to resume at food and drink establishments across the state and the capacity allowed at houses of worship will rise to 40% from 25% starting Saturday.  

State health officials say average daily coronavirus case totals have declined recently. They also say that virus testing capacity is meeting targets and that the virus' spread rate statewide is below the target. New Mexico has reported more than 24,730 confirmed cases and 755 deaths.

The governor urged people to continue following the state's COVID-safe practices — from washing hands and wearing masks to refraining from gathering with other people and staying home as much as possible.

The governor's office said the amended emergency public health order lifting restrictions will be effective through at least mid-September. A current public health order prohibiting all indoor dining will expire Friday.

New Mexico High Court Upholds Health Orders Over Businesses - By Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court upheld the authority of the state health secretary to restrict or close businesses because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The unanimous 4-0 decision Wednesday was spurred by restrictions on indoor dining. In a decision announced by Justice Judith Nakamura, the court also rejected assertions by the restaurant industry that a July 13 ban on indoor dining service was arbitrary and capricious.

The decision bolsters the authority of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and her Cabinet, even as she announced plans to lift a ban on indoor dining as part of a revised public health order that will take effect Saturday. 

Among other things, the new order will clear the way for restaurants, breweries, wineries, distillers, cafes and coffee shops to serve customers indoors in limited capacities.

The state Supreme Court also recently upheld the administration's authority to levy hefty $5,000 daily fines against businesses that flout health orders linked to the coronavirus.

Officials: Enrollment Exceeds Expectations At Diné College - Associated Press

Officials at Diné College are excited about enrollment numbers this fall as more students than expected have registered for classes despite challenges stemming from the coronavirus pandemic.

Provost Geraldine Garrity initially thought the limitations of internet access and connectivity on the Navajo Nation might affect numbers, but she said students found a way and prepared for the fall semester. 

The school reported that fall enrollment totaled 1,348 as of Monday. That's 50 students less than at the same time last year. 

Officials say the college is getting more transfer students and that full-time students outnumber part-timers this year.

Priscilla Leonard, the college's director of enrollment, suggested that one of the reasons for the positive enrollment numbers is that parents wanted their children to stay home rather than return to cities elsewhere.

School officials also said enrollment numbers were likely helped by a 50% reduction in tuition, the creation of a laptop lending program and the range of online courses that are being offered. 

New Mexico Prepares Strategies For Helping The UnemployedAssociated Press

Six times as many people in New Mexico filed for unemployment insurance in July compared with the peak period of job losses during the Great Recession in 2009.

A report Wednesday from the accountability office of the Legislature shows 197,000 people filed for unemployment claims last month across New Mexico, up from 32,800 in June 2009.

The hospitality industry including hotels and restaurants has been hardest hit by the new economic crisis judging from unemployment claims, followed closely by the retail trade and health care industries. About one-fifth of the estimated workforce in the hospitality industry filed jobless claims.

The report says employment in retail and the oil fields may not return to previous levels at all.

The analysis by the Legislative Finance Committee warns that New Mexico may be slower to rebound economically than other states, citing the state's experience in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

State labor officials can help by turning to effective, low-cost re-employment programs.

States including New Mexico have found cost-effective results through programs that combine assessments of reemployment eligibility with referrals to training and job openings.

Unemployment rates have increased most dramatically in Lea County, where petroleum production dominates the economy, and in tourism-dependent Taos County.

Woman Guilty Of Embezzling From Alamogordo Pistachio StoreAssociated Press

Prosecutors say a woman who admitted embezzling tens of thousands of dollars from an Alamogordo business faces up to 18 years in prison when she is sentenced later this year.

The district attorney in Otero and Lincoln counties says 44-year-old Jennifer Najar pleaded no contest to two felony counts of embezzlement of more than $20,000.

Najar had worked at the family owned McGinn's PistachioLand store since 2011, starting as a clerk and working her way up to a manager position before being fired when the theft was discovered last year.

An investigation found she had taken more than $84,000 from the company.