THURS: No Mask Mandate For Vaccinated Youth, Group Sues Santa Fe Mayor Over Obelisk, + More

Jun 17, 2021

  New Mexico Governor Lifts Mask Mandate For Vaccinated Youth - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

New Mexico was under pressure Thursday to get thousands of people vaccinated to meet a deadline set by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

The Democratic governor wanted to reopen the state by July 1, as long as 60% of residents 16 and older were fully vaccinated at least two weeks ahead of that date.

Data from the New Mexico Department of Health showed 59% of eligible residents were fully vaccinated as of midday Thursday, marking just a slight increase from the day before. Some experts have said it would be difficult for the state to hit its mark since the pace of vaccinations over recent days was increasing by only a small fraction.

State officials said they planned to review the vaccine data Friday to determine the state's progress.

Also on Thursday, state officials lifted mask requirements for fully vaccinated youth athletes while they are on the field of play. They must register their vaccine status with an athletic association. "Republican lawmakers criticized the move saying athletes playing outdoors should not be required to wear masks, especially during the recent heat wave.

The state also was considering setting aside up to $1 million in cash incentives for youth sports and academic teams whose members get vaccinated by the end of July. If approved, it would mark the latest round of incentives aimed at boosting vaccinations.

Lujan Grisham on Thursday again promoted a state sweepstakes that features four $250,000 prizes and a grand prize of $5 million. It's funded with federal COVID-19 recovery money. More than 415,000 New Mexicans have registered for the prizes.

The governor called those good odds.

"New Mexicans have been through a lot this last year. I'm glad we're going to have a little fun, and I'm grateful to New Mexicans who continue to get their shots, who encourage family and friends to get their shots, because with every vaccine administered we are one step closer to ending this pandemic," she said in a statement.

The first drawing will be Friday, but state officials said it likely will be a few days before winners are announced as their vaccine status will have to be verified.

State officials during a briefing Wednesday said the incentives were working and they considered spending on prize money as an investment in public health.

However, not all residents are interested in getting vaccinated. State health officials have struggled to boost vaccination rates in rural areas, particularly in the eastern part of the state, despite the availability of doses.

Hispanic Group Sues Santa Fe Mayor Over Destroyed Obelisk - By Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press / Report For America

A New Mexico Hispanic fraternal order is suing the mayor of Santa Fe over damage to a historical monument by activists last year and the city's proposal to permanently remove it.

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in state district court, the Union Protectíva de Santa Fé argues that the 152-year-old stone obelisk is a legally protected historical site under state law and that its removal dishonors Hispanic veterans.

A group of around 40 mostly white activists tore down the stone obelisk last year after other statues and monuments across the U.S. were toppled over concerns about racism.

In Santa Fe, inscriptions at the base of the monument honored Union soldiers who died fighting Indigenous tribes and Confederate soldiers. One inscription that described Indigenous people as "savage" was chiseled out in 1974 and never repaired.

The lawsuit asks a judge to prevent the city from spending any time or money on modifications to the historic downtown park until the stone obelisk is restored.

That would hobble Mayor Alan Webber's plans to have an independent commission determine the statue's fate. Despite calling for the removal of the obelisk, he emphasized that he would respect the final decision of the commission. A proposal for a commission to take on that task is being considered by the city council next month, with an estimated budget of $265,000.

In addition to being a 19th century war memorial, the obelisk is a marker of the land grant issued from Spanish colonial royalty to Hispanic families that conquered the area in the 1600s.

It's a reference point that anchors heritage and religious processions for traditional Hispanics and serves as a reminder of genocide for Native Americans.

"We're protecting our history, culture and our traditions, and our religion also," said Virgil Vigil, President of Union Protectíva de Santa Fé.

For Vigil, a Vietnam War veteran and helicopter pilot, honoring the veterans is a major focus.

"This is respecting our soldiers that gave their lives to maintain the freedom that we have and to end slavery," he said in an interview Monday, near the grey wooden box that covers the remnants of the obelisk.

Vigil has been an outspoken critic of Webber's handling of protests over the obelisk and the removal of a statue of Spanish conquistador Don Diego de Vargas from a downtown park. He said his organization has been shut out of conversations over the monuments' future.

"This lawsuit is not the way forward," Webber said, adding that the commission would start its work "very soon."

A heated argument between the two during a chance encounter at a restaurant near the Plaza was reported by  the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Webber called for removal of the obelisk last year, months before activists tore it down on Oct. 13 during a protest marking Indigenous Peoples Day.

The daytime destruction happened after police left the area in a move the mayor said was meant to prevent physical violence.

"I am angry the vandals tore down the obelisk before it could be removed to safety. I don't approve of it. I think we needed to have a conversation," Webber said.

New Mexico Suffragist Among Notable Women On Quarters US Mint Will Issue – Associated Press

Poet and author Maya Angelou, America's first woman in space and a revered Cherokee Nation leader are among female trailblazers whose likenesses will appear on the U.S. quarter.

The new four-year American Women Quarters Program celebrates women's accomplishments and contributions to the United States' development and history, according to the U.S. Mint.

Under the program, the mint will issue up to five new designs each year from 2022 to 2025. Honorees will be from a variety of fields and from ethnically, racially and geographically diverse backgrounds, the mint says.

Those chosen for the first year are:

— Angelou, celebrated poet and memoirist

— Wilma Mankiller, the Cherokee Nation's first female principal chief

— Adelina Otero-Warren, a leader in New Mexico's suffrage movement

— Sally Ride, the first U.S. woman in space

— Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American Hollywood film star

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. and Mankiller's husband, Charlie Soap, expressed gratitude for Mankiller's inclusion in the program, saying her influence and leadership made her a fitting choice.

Mankiller became one of the United States' most visible Native American leaders during her 10 years as chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, from 1985 to 1995. She died in 2010.

"We thank the U.S. Mint for recognizing Wilma and the other recipients for such an honor," Soap told Indian Country Today. "Wilma was a humble, spiritual, great leader whose leadership was not only for Cherokee people but for all women and races. The real value of this coin is the inspiration it brings to Indian people and women everywhere."

Explainer: What's Behind The Heat Wave In The American West? - By Anita Snow, Associated Press

Much of the American West has been blasted with sweltering heat this week as a high pressure dome combines with the worst drought in modern history to launch temperatures into the triple digits, toppling records even before the official start of summer.

Record daily highs were seen this week in parts of Arizona, California, New Mexico, Montana, Wyoming and Utah. Phoenix, which is baking in some of the U.S. West's hottest weather, was forecast to hit 117 degrees (47 Celsius) Thursday and 116 degrees Friday and Saturday.

"Very dangerous record breaking heat should continue today across the deserts with well above normal highs," the National Weather Service's Phoenix staff wrote on Facebook. "A very good day to stay indoors."

WHY IS THE AMERICAN WEST SO HOT THIS WEEK?

The heat comes from a high pressure system over the West, a buckle in the jet stream winds that move across the U.S. and vast swaths of soil sucked dry by a historic drought, said Marvin Percha, a senior meteorologist for the agency in Phoenix.

He and other scientists say the heat wave is unusual because it arrived earlier and is staying longer than in most years.

"June last year, things seemed pretty normal," noted Park Williams, a University of California, Los Angeles, climate and fire scientist. "The record-breaking heat waves came in August and September."

But with such an early heat wave this year, "this could be the tip of the iceberg," Williams said.

WHAT ROLES DO DROUGHT AND CLIMATE CHANGE PLAY?

A two-decade-long dry spell that some scientists refer to as a "megadrought" has sucked the moisture out of the soil through much of the Western United States. Researchers said in a  study published last year in the journal Science that man-made climate change tied to the emission of greenhouse gases can be blamed for about half of the historic drought.

Scientists studying the dry period that began in 2000 looked at a nine-state area from Oregon and Wyoming down through California and New Mexico and found only one other that was slightly larger. That drought started in 1575, a decade after St. Augustine, Florida, was founded and before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620.

The hot weather can be tied to the drought drying out the landscape. Normally, some of the sun's heat evaporates moisture in the soil, but scientists say the Western soil is so dry that instead that energy makes the air even warmer.

"When the soil is wet, heat waves aren't so bad," said Williams, who has calculated that soil in the western half of the nation is the driest it has been since 1895. "But if it's dry, we are under extreme risk."

HOW DO RECENT WILDFIRES FIGURE INTO THIS?

Scientists say the wildfires that have erupted in recent days have been fed by the excessive heat across the region. Climate change contributes to the drought conditions and makes trees and shrubs more likely to catch fire.

At least 14 new wildfires broke out this week in Montana and Wyoming as the record heat sparked an early start to the fire season. Firefighters also battled blazes in Arizona and New Mexico.

"From a fire potential standpoint, what is capable this year, it is certainly much more severe than we've seen in the past," U.S. Department of Agriculture fire meteorologist Gina Palma said in a climate briefing Thursday.

Palma said the drought-related fire risks were especially pronounced in higher elevations across much of the U.S. West, from the Rocky Mountains down into the Southwest and parts of California.

"You will be seeing very extreme fire behavior, certainly conditions that we would not normally see in June," she said.

IS THIS THE NEW NORMAL?

A growing number of scientific studies are concluding that heat waves in some cases can be directly attributed to climate change, said Kristie L. Ebi, a professor at the Center for Health and the Global Environment at the University of Washington.

That means the U.S. West and the rest of the world can expect more extreme heat waves in the future unless officials move to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions, Ebi and other scientists say.

A study last month  estimated the percent and number of heat deaths each year that can be attributed to human-caused climate change. It included about 200 U.S. cities and found more than 1,100 deaths a year from climate change-caused heat, representing about 35% of all heat deaths in the country.

On average each year, Phoenix has 23 climate-triggered heat deaths, Los Angeles has 21 and Tucson has 13, the study said.

"Climate change is harming us now," Ebi said. "It's a future problem, but it's also a current problem."

Albuquerque Sues Over Lighting On Problem-Plagued Bus RouteAlbuquerque Journal, Associated Press

New Mexico's largest city has sued companies involved in the design and construction of a rapid transit system over light fixtures that have fallen or weren't secured.

The Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus system has been plagued with problems that include electrical charging, wheelchair access on platforms, mirrors hitting canopies and crashes on the bus routes that run along Central Avenue, a major city corridor.

Albuquerque is seeking at least $2.5 million in compensatory damages and another $10 million in punitive damages as part of a lawsuit it filed last week regarding the light fixtures.

At least 46 streetlights either have fallen to the ground or had to be removed because they were being held in place by only electrical wiring, endangering the public, the lawsuit contends. Some of the 25-pound lights have fallen up to 25 feet onto the street, according to the lawsuit.

Ill-fitting screws and other parts provided by the manufacturer caused the lights to loosen from light poles, according to a reported prepared for the city.

The company that manufactured the lights, California-based Environmental Lighting for Architecture Inc., told the Albuquerque Journal that the firm has reached out to the city in hopes "a swift and amicable solution can be found."

The firm's president, Scott Jones, said the lighting fixtures had been modified by an outside source against its recommendations.

The general contractor for the bus system, Bradbury Stamm Construction, and Massachusetts-based Dalkia Energy Solutions, which was hired to convert the city's streetlights to LED lighting, did not respond to the newspaper's requests for comment.

Another defendant, New Mexico-based architectural firm Dekker/Perich/Sabatini, said it had no part in the selection or installation of the streetlights and should not have been named in the lawsuit.

The city of Albuquerque said it spent about $494,000 to secure, retrofit and replace streetlights on the bus route.

The city began service on the route in November 2019 using diesel-powered buses after it rejected electric buses that had insufficient battery life and other problems.

Former Mayor Richard Berry had proposed the bus system as a way to transform Central Avenue. Some businesses argued it restrict access for customers and lead to more traffic problems.

New Mexico's Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument ReopensAssociated Press

With the threat of a wildfire lessening, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National

With the threat of a wildfire lessening, the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument is ready to reopen.

Acting Park Superintendent Jerome Flood announced Wednesday that Gila Cliff Dwellings would reopen on Thursday morning.

Authorities said a nearby wildfire was cooling down and the risk to the public was minimal.

Visitors will be able to view the Cliff Dwellings from the trail in Cliff Dweller Canyon, but won't be able to enter the caves.

Cliff Dweller Road and NM Highway 15 to the Gila Visitor Center Parking lot will be open.

The Upper and Lower Scorpion Campgrounds, West Fork Trailhead, Woody's Corral and TJ's Corral Trailhead will remain closed due to fire personnel occupying these areas.

Selection Process Begins For Supreme Court Succession Associated Press

The selection process is underway to fill a vacancy on the New Mexico Supreme Court with the departure of Barbara Vigil at the end of June.

A bipartisan nominating commission is scheduled on Thursday to interview candidates for the high court post. Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has final say on which nominee to appoint.

Applicants include Santa Fe-based District Court Judge T. Glenn Ellington, who last year dismissed a Republican Party challenge on the oversight of election ballot drop boxes.

Appeals Court Judge Briana Zamora of Albuquerque and District Judge Jennifer DeLaney of Deming were nominated previously in 2020 and passed over by the governor.

State District Judge Victor Lopez is a former state workers compensation official whose wife previously received a vacancy appointment to the state Senate by Lujan Grisham in 2019.

Retiring Justice Vigil wrote the lead majority opinion in 2019 that set aside the death penalty for the final two inmates awaiting execution a decade after the state's repeal of capital punishment. She also authored recent opinions on utility regulation amid the state's transition away from coal-fired power plants.

Vigil's successor must stand for partisan election in 2022. The winner of that election will confront a retention vote in 2024.

In recent months, the Supreme Court has been an arbiter of the governor's emergency powers during the COVID-19 pandemic, recently rejecting lawsuits seeking automatic compensation for businesses affected by aggressive pandemic restriction.

A moratorium on housing evictions remains in place at the court's discretion in response to the economic stress of the pandemic.

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