WED: Court Sides With Governor As Limited Indoor Dining To Resume, + More

Aug 26, 2020

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.

Restaurants have been whipsawed as Lujan Grisham's administration suspended its reopening of the economy in mid-July — and put a halt to indoor dining — in response to a wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths that has relented in recent weeks.

A handful of states, including California and New Jersey, currently prohibit indoor dining as a temporary safeguard against the spread of COVID-19.

New Mexico is faring better against virus infections than neighboring Arizona and Texas.

As of Tuesday, it had the lowest average rate of positive tests in the western U.S., according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by the Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The number of average daily deaths is hovering between four and five statewide.

Separately, a bevy of lawsuits have been filed by small businesses that are seeking compensation from the state for financial losses linked to pandemic health orders.

Limited Indoor Dining To Resume For New Mexico Restaurants - By Susan Montoya Bryana and Cedar Attanasio, Associated Press, KUNM, Santa Fe New Mexican

New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham plans to relax some public health mandates and she is citing recent progress in slowing the coronavirus outbreak.

The governor said Wednesday that limited indoor dining at food and drink establishments will be allowed. And capacity at houses of worship will be increased from 25% to 40% starting Saturday.

The decision comes as the New Mexico State Supreme Court ruled Wednesday in favor of the governor and Department of Health on their restriction of indoor dining to combat coronavirus.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reports the court ruled the DOH secretary had the authority put the ban in place. The New Mexico Restaurant Association and several restaurants had challenged that authority in a lawsuit.

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.

Officials on Wednesday reported 205 new COVID-19 cases, bringing that total to 24,732. There were five more deaths, bringing the total to 755.

Lujan Grisham 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, is set to expire Friday.

New Mexico is falling short of a benchmark set for how long it takes to notify and quarantine people who may have been exposed to the coronavirus.

The state's target is to reach people within 36 hours of a contact testing positive to alert them about possible exposure.

The Health Department reported about two weeks ago that it was taking 29 hours to isolate a person's contacts after a positive test, but that figure ballooned to 47 hours in an update made public Tuesday.

State Supreme Court Hears Challenge On Indoor Dining Ban - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

The state Supreme Court is weighing a challenge against New Mexico's pandemic-related ban on indoor dining under the administration of Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. 

Arguments were scheduled Wednesday in Santa Fe at a court that recently upheld the state's authority to levy hefty $5,000 daily fines against businesses that flout health orders linked to the coronavirus.

New Mexico is among a handful of states including California and New Jersey that prohibit indoor dining as a temporary safeguard against the spread of COVID-19. 

Attorneys for the restaurant industry assert that state health officials are invoking science as the basis of the ban without sharing specific scientific findings or deliberations.

In support of the restriction, health officials are citing medical journals, outbreaks traced to restaurants by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local infections that trigger "rapid response" testing and contact tracing in New Mexico. Restaurants and health care facilities have routinely had more outbreak responses than other sectors of the New Mexico economy.

Separately, a bevy of lawsuits have been filed by small businesses that are seeking compensation from the state for financial losses linked to pandemic health orders.

US House Hopefuls In New Mexico Race Unload Dueling Gun Ads - By Russell Contreras, Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell have released dueling gun ads aimed at appealing to independent voters in New Mexico's southern district.

This week, Torres Small unveiled a commercial where she is shown shooting various firearms in the desert while proclaiming, "This is how I unwind." It's similar to the Las Cruces Democrat's 2018 ad showing her shooting a rifle.

Herrell released an ad this week with Democratic Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace attacking Torres Small for voting for a gun control measure. The ad also shows Herrell shooting a gun but at a firing range.

The district, one of the poorest and with one of the highest percentage of Hispanic residents in the country, has been hard with the economic downturn and the pandemic.

Yet gun rights are expected to play a factor in this traditionally Republican-leaning, sprawling district that stretches from the lucrative oil region of the Permian Basin to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Torres Small beat Herrell in 2018 by less than 4,000 votes to flip the district to Democrats. She is among the most vulnerable Democrats in Congress. The rematch is expected to draw leaders from both parties and millions in PAC money.

Herrell faced criticism in 2018 for focusing on the conservative, Republican base and ignoring reporters and Hispanic voters. This time, she is vowing to "work across the line" while in the U.S. House. She recently picked up an endorsement from former Democratic U.S. Rep. Harry Teague, who once held Torres Small's seat.

Woman Guilty Of Embezzling From Alamogordo Pistachio Store Associated 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.

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.

Family Of Late New Mexico Lineman Sues Former Coach, School - By Russell Contreras Associated Press

The family of a University of New Mexico football player who took his own life says the school and its former coach ignored his pleas for help and instead made him play while injured.

The mother and father of Nahje Flowers announced Tuesday they were suing the university, former head coach Bob Davie and the NCAA for not protecting the 21-year-old lineman, who died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in November.

The lawsuit filed in federal court said Davie and the university failed to protect Flowers after he sought counseling to fight depression.

A lawyer for Davie did not return an email seeking comment. 

University of New Mexico spokesman Daniel Jiron said the school had not seen the lawsuit and would likely not comment on any pending litigation. NCAA spokesman Emily James declined to comment.

Court documents said the defensive standout had sought counseling to fight depression but Davie overruled a therapist's recommendation that Flowers take some time off. He died days after, the lawsuit said.

The attorney for Flowers’ family said an autopsy later found that Flowers suffered from CTE — the brain injury associated with repeated blows to the head that can lead to depression, dementia and erratic behavior.

Bernalillo County Deputies Fatally Shoot 1, Sparking ProtestAssociated Press

Authorities in New Mexico say deputies fatally shot a man who had opened fire in a neighborhood in northeast Albuquerque.

Bernalillo County Sheriff Manuel Gonzales says deputies responded Monday afternoon after getting calls about a man who was walking around and pointing a gun. Gonzales says the subject shot in the direction of the deputies, who then returned fire. The subject died on the scene. No deputies were injured.

Authorities say the shooting is under investigation and it wasn't immediately known how many shots were fired by the man or by deputies.

The man's name has not been released, and the deputies have been placed on standard administrative leave pending interviews.

The shooting sparked an immediate protest where about 30 demonstrators carried signs that read “no justice no peace” and “Black Lives Matter."

"We don't know the person who you all shot, but he's a citizen just like us," said Arthur Bell, an organizer in the Black New Mexico Movement. "We're out here because we give a damn, because we know how his family feels. We understand that, unlike you all, tonight he's probably not going home."

The protest ended before 9:30 p.m. after demonstrators held a moment of silence.

"Law enforcement officers must make split-second decisions to protect the lives of citizens and their own lives when faced with deadly force," the sheriff said. "While it is extremely unfortunate that a life was lost in this incident, it is completely unacceptable to recklessly discharge a firearm into a residential neighborhood placing the citizens and deputies' life's in immediate danger."

Albuquerque Police Pull Tweet Denouncing Wisconsin Shooting - Associated Press

Albuquerque police have deleted a tweet that denounced the "senseless" shooting of a Black man by Kenosha, Wisconsin, police and expressed sympathy for his family. 

Police Chief Mike Geier said Tuesday the tweet attributed to him was sent in error and apologized. The now-deleted tweet expressed sympathy to Jacob Blake's family and his children who witnessed the police shooting. 

"The senseless shooting of Jacob Blake once again shows why our community and communities across the nation are seeking justice and change," the now-deleted tweet read. "On Behalf of APD, I offer my sympathy to Jacob Blake's family and his children who witnessed this disturbing act. I sincerely hope he makes a full recovery."

Video of officers shooting Blake while his back was turned to them has generated demonstrations in Kenosha, and even ignited NBA basketball stars LeBron James to speak out.

But Albuquerque police spokesman Gilbert Gallegos, who had advised that the department send a tweet about the Blake shooting, said the social media post was sent without giving Geier a chance to review it.

Albuquerque Police Officers' Association president Sean Willoughby called the tweet embarrassing.

Albuquerque police remain under court-order reforms following a harsh report about excessive force cases and the department's own string of police shootings that sparked violent protests in 2014.

Los Alamos Newspaper To Call It Quits After Decades In PrintAssociated Press

The newspaper that has served the northern New Mexico community of Los Alamos for nearly six decades will publish its last edition on Sunday.

The Los Alamos Monitor announced on its webpage that the decision was shared with staff Friday by officials with Landmark Community Newspapers. The company has owned the paper since 1979.

Landmark President Mike Abernathy said the staff has worked hard to produce a quality newspaper but that their efforts weren't enough to overcome economic challenges that have worsened in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

Officials also pointed to diminishing community support for the newspaper, noting a decision by local government officials to send their legal advertising to a free newspaper competitor.

The Monitor is the only paid circulation newspaper serving Los Alamos County, one of the most affluent counties in the U.S. and home to the once-secret government installation where scientists developed the atomic bomb as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II.

The newspaper's first edition was published on March 7, 1963, using typewriters and typesetters in rented offices above a jewelry store. The weekly eventually evolved into a daily and moved to another location and was equipped with a press.

As circumstances changed, the publication was reduced to three times a week and then the decision was made to go to twice a week in March.

At its peak, the Monitor employed more than 25. Today, the staff numbers four.

Officials said Monitor staff will continue to print a sister newspaper, The Las Vegas Optic, until a buyer is found for the newspaper building in Los Alamos.

The decision to close the Monitor comes on the heels of the news that community radio station KRSN AM 1490 will sign off for good on the same day.

New Mexico Reports 69 New COVID-19 Cases And Three More DeathsKUNM, Associated Press

New Mexico health officials reported 69 additional cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, bringing the total since the pandemic began to 24,535.

That includes two new cases among inmates held by the state at the Central New Mexico Correctional Facility in Valencia County.

There were also three more deaths, two men in Doña Ana County and one woman in Rio Arriba County.

That brings the number of deaths from COVID-19 to 750 in New Mexico.

The Department of Health reports there are more than 800 cases among people held by federal agencies at facilities in Cibola, Otero and Torrance counties.

There are just over 500 cases among inmates held by the New Mexico Corrections Department in seven facilities.

The Otero County Prison Facility has the highest number of cases among state and federal inmates and detainees.

New Mexico is faring better against virus infections than neighboring states such as Arizona and Texas. 

As of Tuesday, it had the lowest average rate of positive tests in the western U.S., according to an analysis by The Associated Press of data collected by Johns Hopkins University Center for Systems Science and Engineering. The number of average daily deaths is hovering between four and five statewide.

Navajo Nation Reports 10 New COVID-19 Cases And 1 More Death - Associated Press

Navajo Nation health officials have reported 10 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 with one additional death.

That brings the total number of people infected to 9,557 with the known death toll now at 494 as of Monday night. 

Navajo Department of Health officials say 92,358 people have been tested for the coronavirus and 7,063 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. 

US House Hopefuls In New Mexico Race Unload Dueling Gun Ads - By Russell Contreras Associated Press

Democratic U.S. Rep. Xochitl Torres Small and Republican challenger Yvette Herrell have released dueling gun ads aimed at appealing to independent voters in New Mexico's southern district. 

This week Torres Small unveiled a commercial where she is shown shooting various firearms in the desert while proclaiming, "this is how I unwind." It's similar to the Las Cruces Democrat's 2018 ad showing her shooting a rifle. 

Herrell released an ad this week with Democratic Cibola County Sheriff Tony Mace attacking Torres Small for voting for a gun control measure. The ad also shows Herrell shooting a gun but at a firing range.

Aerial Inspection Company To Invest In New Mexico Expansion Associated Press

A company that inspects oil and gas pipelines from the air plans to expand in southern New Mexico.

State economic development officials announced Tuesday that LaSen Inc. has been awarded a $750,000 grant to build a larger headquarters and add more drones and helicopters to its fleet.

The company also plans to more than double its workforce by hiring nearly 80 employees over five years. State and local officials say they're excited by the prospect of having more high-paying jobs in New Mexico.

The announcement also comes as New Mexico prepares to ramp up required reporting of methane leaks from the oil industry.

That's something that LaSen specializes in, having surveyed more than 500,000 miles of pipeline. The company says it has detected thousands of leaks and has saved customers millions of dollars.

LaSen plans to invest more than $8 million in a new location in Las Cruces. The expansion is expected to have a statewide economic impact of $463 million over 10 years, officials said.

Survey, Focus Groups Aim To Boost New Mexico Competitiveness - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

One of New Mexico's largest economic development advocacy groups has launched an online survey to take the temperature of business owners and others on everything from taxes to public safety, broadband access and transportation infrastructure.

The goal is to use the results and a series of upcoming focus groups to develop recommendations on how the state can better boost the competitiveness of New Mexico businesses.

The push comes as many businesses face ongoing pressures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and public health mandates. New Mexico has reported more than 24,400 cases and nearly 750 deaths since the pandemic began.

The survey, by the Association of Commerce and Industry, went live Monday and will run through Sept. 4.

It has the backing of companies such as computer chip manufacturer Intel along with some of the state's largest utilities, banks and credit unions, and New Mexico State University and the University of New Mexico.

The focus groups that will start in September will look at potential growth sectors for the economy, including aerospace and defense, tourism and outdoor recreation, agriculture, trade along the international border and new energy infrastructure.

The association plans to have a final report and recommendations completed in December, with some preliminary results being presented to interim legislative committees in the late fall to ensure the conversation is going before lawmakers meet in January for their next regular session.

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