WED: New Mexico Reports New Single-Day Record With 827 COVID Cases, + More

Oct 21, 2020

New Mexico Reports Single-Day Record 827 New COVID-19 CasesAssociated Press, KUNM

Health officials in New Mexico on Wednesday reported a single-day record of 827 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 and eight additional deaths.

The latest numbers increase the total cases to 38,715 statewide since the pandemic started, with 950 known deaths.

Of the new cases, New Mexico Department of Health officials said 292 of them were in Bernalillo County and 172 more in Doña Ana County.

There are 202 people hospitalized for COVID-19 in the state. As of Wednesday, 80% of adult general beds in New Mexico hospitals are occupied and 71% of adult intensive care unit beds as well. Those numbers include people hospitalized for COVID-19 and other illnesses.

The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people have not been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.

The New Mexico Department of Health has designated 20,332 COVID-19 cases has having recovered. However, studies show COVID-19 symptoms can linger even after recovery.

Renewable Energy Giant To Buy New Mexico's Largest Utility - By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press

The parent company of New Mexico's largest electric utility will become part of energy giant Iberdrola's global holdings under a multibillion-dollar merger.

Under the agreement announced Wednesday, Iberdrola's majority-owned U.S. subsidiary Avangrid will acquire PNM Resources.

Officials say the transaction is part of Iberdrola's strategy for investing in regions where regulations related to renewable energy are stable and offer opportunities for growth.

New Mexico in 2019 adopted ambitious mandates to become carbon-free by 2045, and Public Service Co. of New Mexico has vowed to meet that standard by 2040 through the addition of more solar generation and battery storage.

The deal will have to be approved by regulators.

Officials with both companies say the transaction, if approved, will create one of the biggest renewable energy companies in the U.S. with 10 regulated utilities in six states.

PNM Resources Chairman, President and CEO Pat Vincent-Collawn said the merger will benefit customers, employees and shareholders and that PNM's leadership over the next year will be focused on closing the transaction and making sure to provide customers with excellent service.

Officials with both PNM Resources and Avangrid said the merger will provide for more opportunities to invest in infrastructure and technology to further their renewable energy pursuits.

PNM already is on track to divest in 2022 from the San Juan Generating Station, one of the largest coal-fired power plants in the American Southwest. It also recently broke ground on a new solar farm that will provide electricity for municipalities and other large customers as part of a new program to boost access to cost-effective renewable generation.

Under the proposed merger, PNM shareholders will receive about $4.3 billion in cash. The purchase price represents a premium of nearly 20% over PNM's average share price during the last 30 days.

Watchdog Group Cites Interference At Polls In Latino Areas - By Morgan Lee, Associated Press

A voting rights group says that caravans of flag-waving President Donald Trump supporters appeared to obstruct and intimidate voters at two polling location in predominantly ethnic-minority neighborhoods last weekend in the Albuquerque area.

Common Cause New Mexico Director Heather Ferguson said Wednesday that the incidents took place on the first day of balloting at voter convenience centers in the South Valley area and the western reaches of Central Avenue.

The areas are heavily Latino. She estimates that dozens of potential voters in each location left without voting as a result of the incidents.

Local prosecutors say they are investigating.

State Republican Party spokesman Mike Curtis said he has no direct knowledge of the matter. Representatives for the Trump reelection campaign had no immediate comment when contacted.

State statute prohibits electioneering within 100 feet of a polling place, approaching a voter within 50 feet of poll doors or blocking access in any way.

New Mexico Health Agency Resends 30K Old Virus Test ResultsAssociated Press

The New Mexico Department of Health has erroneously sent old coronavirus test results to about 30,000 people, of whom 1,600 were awaiting new test results when they received the notification.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported that department spokeswoman Marisa Maez said thousands of people received a repeated notification about an old test because of a technical hiccup caused by a software update.

Maez said the department and software provider sent out follow-up messages apologizing for the error and asking people to disregard the notifications. She said the messages were not a result of any "malicious attack."


Business Mandates Mount As New Mexico Deals With Virus Surge - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has unveiled more requirements for businesses after a string of record-breaking daily case counts prompted renewed restrictions just last week.

Starting Friday, restaurants, bars, retail stores, gyms and other businesses must close for two weeks if they have more than four separate outbreaks among employees within a 14-day period.

The state is now publishing a watch list of businesses that have had two or more outbreaks. Sandia National Laboratories is among the businesses being investigated by the state's Occupational Health and Safety Bureau.

A letter sent Monday by the bureau and obtained by The Associated Press alleges that Sandia failed to comply with the health order by not limiting operations to remote work to the greatest extent practicable to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

The state claims employees were ordered to cease telework and report to work in-person, but lab officials say the majority of infections among workers were acquired offsite and outside of work hours.

Restaurants that want to continue offering limited indoor dining must also complete specific training and keep a log of customers for at least three weeks. Retail stores must close by 10 p.m., and state-operated museums and historical sites will be closed until further notice.

Lujan Grisham said the restrictions are not meant to punish businesses but rather curb what has become one of the highest rates of spread in the U.S.

New Mexico on Tuesday reported an additional 599 cases, bringing the total to nearly 37,900 since the pandemic began. Another seven deaths were reported, and hospitalizations have increased nearly 90% over the last two weeks.

Despite having some of the strictest rules in the country, Lujan Grisham's administration has been struggling in recent weeks with a surge in cases and increases in transmission and positivity rates. The governor said she believes the exponential increase is the result of people letting their guard down and not taking precautions.

Under the state's rapid response program, officials responded to more than 830 businesses during the past week. That marked a six-fold increase over the last month.

Businesses on the watch list range from hospitals and medical marijuana operations to law firms, car dealerships, grocery stores and gas stations.

The Republican Party of New Mexico called the latest requirements another attack on businesses, saying the Democratic governor's policies during the pandemic have led to a collapsed economy, tens of thousands of job losses and hundreds of permanently shuttered restaurants.

“Locking down New Mexico more is not the answer,” party chairman Steve Pearce said, suggesting that the governor's rules were arbitrary.

Border Patrol Agent Impersonator In New Mexico Gets Prison - Associated Press

A man in New Mexico has been sentenced to nearly two years in federal prison for impersonating a Border Patrol agent. 

Prosecutors say 45-year-old James Christopher Benvie received a 21-month prison term after being convicted in the case in March. 

Court records show Benvie was a leader and spokesperson for a group of vigilantes who camped at the border in Doña Ana County. 

Authorities say many members of the group wore badges, camouflage and other military-style clothing, often covered their faces with masks, and carried pistols and assault rifles. 

They say Benvie misrepresented himself as a Border Patrol agent in April 2019 when stopping and interrogating immigrants he suspected of crossing into the country illegally.

New Mexico Supreme Court Seeks Members For Equity Commission - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court is looking for people to serve on a newly created commission on equity and justice. 

An order issued Monday formally established the commission and outlined the framework for its membership. 

The panel will study issues related to bias and inequities in the state justice system and promote diversity among judges and judicial employees. 

In addition to state and local judges, voting members will include representatives from the University of New Mexico law school, attorneys, community advocates and one state lawmaker. 

Representatives from more than two dozen legal organizations will also be invited to participate on the commission.

New Mexico Court Upholds Former Officer's Murder Conviction - Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has upheld the first-degree murder conviction of a former Silver City police officer in the killing of his estranged wife amid a contentious divorce and child-custody case. 

The court's ruling Monday said the trial court properly allowed admission of hearsay statements from victim Cassy Farrington concerning Bradley Scott Farrington because there was evidence that he killed her to make her unavailable as a witness. 

The ruling cited Bradley Farrington's extensive history of domestic violence, his exploitation of his status as a police officer, and the couple's acrimonious divorce and custody proceedings. 

The victim, a 23-year-old mother of two, was found dead in her Silver City home in 2014.

New Mexico High Court OKs Rule Changes On Pretrial Detention Associated Press

The New Mexico Supreme Court has approved rule changes that court officials say will enhance public safety by helping prosecutors assess whether certain felony defendants are dangerous and should be kept in jail while awaiting trial.

The Administrative Office of the Courts said the justices approved the changes last week. A committee of representatives from all three branches of state government had recommended the state revise the justice system's rules for implementing a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2016.

The changes include permitting judges to delay certain defendants' initial pretrial release to give prosecutors more time to determine whether pretrial detention is warranted.

Other changes allow judges to schedule detention hearings if prosecutors haven't yet filed a motion for detention and to allow law enforcement records to be used instead of in-person testimony during pretrial detention hearings.

The changes will help in rural areas where prosecutors and defense attorneys often aren't present for a defendant's first appearance before a judge who decides whether a defendant is released and under what conditions, the office said.

The changes take effect for cases pending or filed on or after Nov. 23, the courts office said.

Employees Unionize At Upstart Meow Wolf Arts Venue - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

Workers at a popular immersive arts entertainment project have approved the formation of a labor union under the Communications Workers of America umbrella.

Meow Wolf employee Michael Wilson said Tuesday that the move to unionize was approved by a majority of 130 eligible, rank-and-file employees by electronic balloting.

He said the union bargaining unit, Meow Wolf Workers Collective, aims to negotiate a labor contract with company management within a year.

Meow Wolf coined a new brand of family entertainment with its "House of Eternal Return" exhibition in Santa Fe that is currently idled by a statewide pandemic health order.

Meow Wolf laid off just over 200 workers in April but has plans to expand into Las Vegas and Denver next year. Employees there are not covered by the union.

Wilson said the vote to unionize gives workers at a rapidly evolving startup company new assurances of stability in turbulent economic times.

Meow Wolf managers have highlighted the company's current $17 hourly minimum wage, comprehensive benefits and the recent addition of a "chief people officer who shares our commitment and passion for our diversity, equity and inclusion goals."

The company earlier this year reached undisclosed settlement agreements to resolve workplace- and gender-discrimination lawsuits in state district court. Meow Wolf co-founder Vince Kadlubek, named as a defendant in the lawsuits, stepped down as CEO in October 2019.

Window Opens For Virgin Galactic's Final Round Of Testing - By Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

The window opens later this week for the final round of testing of Virgin Galactic's rocket-powered spacecraft as the company inches toward commercial flights.

Virgin Galactic President Mike Moses updated New Mexico lawmakers on the progress during a meeting Monday. The space tourism company already has done nine flights from Spaceport America in southern New Mexico, including two glide flights by the spaceship.

Moses says the upcoming test will mark the third space flight for Virgin Galactic and the first from New Mexico. Two pilots will crew the flight and cargo including several research projects will be carried in the cabin.

More than 600 customers from around the world have purchased tickets to be launched into the lower fringes of space where they can experience weightlessness and get a view of the Earth below.

The suborbital flights are designed to reach an altitude of at least 50 miles before gliding to a landing.

Netflix Halts Production In New Mexico Amid Virus CasesAlbuquerque Journal, Santa Fe New Mexican, Associated Press

Netflix has halted production of its Western film "The Harder They Fall" on Thursday after at least two people among the cast and crew tested positive for the coronavirus while working in New Mexico.

The production did not identify the infected people. The production has been required to adhere to state safety guidelines, including facial masks and social distancing. The cast and crew also has been subjected to multiple coronavirus tests a week.

Productions usually wait two weeks with no positive tests before resuming. This film resumed shooting in late September after being shut down in March because of the pandemic.

The Albuquerque Journal reported the New Mexico Rapid Response report listed the positive test at Santa Fe Studios.

The Santa Fe New Mexican reported the New Mexico Environment Department, which publishes a daily list of entities in the state reporting newly confirmed coronavirus tests, reported that Netflix confirmed at least five positive test results between Oct. 8 and Oct. 19, with at least two of those reports listed as "THTF," an acronym for the film.

The cast of the Western includes Jonathan Majors and Idris Elba. In March, Elba was one of the first actors to announce he had tested positive for COVID-19. He has since recovered.