Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller outlined how the city is handling preparations for reopening businesses in the future in a press conference on Thursday.
“I’m proud of Bernalillo County and of Albuquerque that we actually have been doing a very good job of flattening the curve, staying home and following orders,” he said.
Keller’s press conference came a day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said she would extend the public health order until May 15, but that the state was now in the “preparation” phase of looking into easing restrictions and reopening businesses.
Keller pointed to a graph charting new cases in Bernalillo County that shows the curve has flattened some, though Keller warned it was still increasing.
“It’s going to be a different kind of summer this year,” Keller said. “As badly as we want to pick a date to open up, it’s clear the virus picks the date, not us.”
Keller said he wants to see a downward trend in new cases in the county before the city begins reopening businesses.
“We don’t even have that yet,” he said. “We do hope it’s weeks, not months. But we’re just going to have to continue to use data to inform those decisions.”
Keller also warned that opening up the city before it’s safe to do so will likely lead to longer and harsher economic repercussions if the city is forced to shut down again, and may endanger more lives if there is a second large spike in cases.
“The price of opening up too soon is lives lost. We need to be very careful about when we open up, both to save lives and to make sure we [don’t have] to close the economy again,” Keller said. “All the models essentially show that there’s going to be relapses. The key is, can we handle them.”
Keller walked through a number of considerations the city is exploring for managing a strategic and staggered opening, including coordinating with other mayors in central New Mexico for a regional opening.
“We all know the virus does not care about political boundaries, and economically these boundaries aren’t necessarily meaningful,” Keller said, referring Bernalillo County’s boundary with Valencia County and Sandoval County. “Those communities are very important to the Albuquerque metro area.”
Keller said he wants to see zero or negative new case numbers in the surrounding communities before opening up business again.
“We really want to think of central New Mexico as an economic and public health region, as opposed to using some of these county boundaries. But the situation is different for every neighborhood, really.”
Besides new case numbers reaching zero or negative, Keller said other criteria for reopening include maintaining testing capacity and medical beds and personnel. He said the city has made progress on all those fronts, but said it isn’t time to “jump the gun” on reopening.
“We’re very much in support of a wait and see approach,” Keller said. “By the end of next week and the beginning of May, we should have some much clearer data on which direction these curves are going.”
Keller said businesses will reopen in a staggered fashion, and that certain businesses may need to close temporarily for sanitizing and contact-tracing if and when new cases of COVID-19 appear. He said the city will need to work closely with the state Department of Health and medical centers and the business to ensure this process can be completed and the business can re-open in a few days.
“We expect that to become a reality,” Keller said. “Those relapses are something we want to be ready for as part of reopening.”
He said residents should expect a “new normal” when businesses reopen, including occupancy restrictions, possible mask mandates for certain employees, temperature checks for entering certain buildings, and “living with this concept of contact-tracing and quarantines when there are positive cases identified.”
“These are going to have to become routine for us, all the way through the end of the summer,” he said.
Lawrence Rael, the Chief Operating Officer for the city, said he’s working with city departments to determine what adjusts can be made for the city’s summer programs to maintain social distancing. The fourth of July fireworks display, for example, may be modified this year into a tailgating event, where residents essentially drive into a viewing area and stay in their cars.
Rael added that the city’s SummerFest activities have been cancelled through June.
“This will be a very different summer for all of us,” Rael said. “It is super important that we manage this in a methodical process. The health of the state is paramount.”