March 12, 2020

State agencies still open, public encouraged to access them online or by phone

Matthew Reichbach

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared a state of public health emergency Wednesday in the light of three presumptive cases of COVID-19 in the state. By the end of the day, her office announced a fourth case. Lujan Grisham’s message to the public was to avoid unnecessary human to human contact, consider not traveling outside of the state and work from home if possible. But that can be difficult for state employees whose jobs require them to work directly with the public. 

Lujan Grisham also announced that non-essential state employees would be allowed to work from home. A spokesman told NM Political Report Thursday morning that the governor’s intention was “to keep as many people working at home as possible.”

Tripp Stelnicki, a spokesman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham was not referring to non-essential employees in a technical sense, but instead calling on cabinet secretaries to encourage employees to “telework” if they can. 

“It’s every secretary’s obligation to find a way to execute that,” Stelnicki said. 

But that’s not to say public-facing employees will stop working. Stelnicki said the governor’s office and agencies like the Motor Vehicle Division will still be open to the public, with the caveat that people should try to conduct their business online or by phone as much as possible. 

Within hours of Lujan Grisham’s initial announcement that there were positive tests for  COVID-19 in New Mexico, those cases increased and Thursday morning, the state Department of Health announced a ban on gatherings that include more than 100 people. 

But for some state agencies, there is little room to avoid close human to human contact. 

The state’s Children Youth and Families Department (CYFD) is still required by law to keep in regular contact with some families. 

CYFD spokesman Charlie Moore-Pabst said there are several cases that require caseworkers travel outside of the state, which causes more difficulties since Lujan Grisham put a temporary stop to non-essential out-of-state travel by state employees. 

Mooere-Pabst said CYFD is required to visit any children who are the department’s care on a regular basis. 

“The federal government requires that we put eyes on those children every 30 days,” Moore-Pabst said. 

He said the department is now asking for a temporary waiver to allow those check-ins to happen over the phone or online. 

But otherwise, CYFD workers will continue to do home visits within New Mexico. 

Moore-Pabst added that CYFD is following the governor’s orders and sent some employees home to work remotely. The department is working on technical issues like giving remote access to other employees who could do their jobs at home, Moore-Pabst said. 

And, like the governor’s office, Moore-Pabst said the department still has employees at physical locations to help families. 

“Our offices are all still open and available if you need our services,” he said.

But CYFD is also asking that families try and get their questions answered or concerns addressed over the phone or online if possible. 

Meanwhile, Albuquerque’s 2nd Judicial District announced Thursday that it cancelled two law clinics through the beginning of April. While courts around the state have not shut down, New Mexico Supreme Court Justice Judith Nakamura announced Thursday that court activities and operations would be pared down in light of the confirmed COVID-19 cases. 

“We are working closely with state and local governments and taking steps to ensure that courthouses are safe for jurors, litigants, lawyers, judicial employees, judges and all members of the public,” Nakamura said in a statement. 

Some of those precautions include significantly reducing the size of jury pools, postponing some civil jury trials and enhanced cleaning requirements for those who maintain judicial buildings. 

Since Wednesday, there have been five reported cases of COVID-19 in New Mexico. 

State officials continue to stress that anyone who thinks they may have contracted the virus should not go to the doctor, urgent care or the emergency room. The DOH encourages those showing symptoms of COVID-19 to call DOH. If symptoms are urgent enough to see a doctor immediately, patients are encouraged to call 911.