In a press conference on Monday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase went over the new tiered “red to green” COVID-19 framework that the state will enter on Dec. 2, following the end of the two-week lockdown “reset.”
“This, we believe, is a mechanism that will allow New Mexico to sort of move through the virus, protect New Mexicans [and] provide a little bit of more economic certainty for the entire state as a whole,” Lujan Grisham said during the remote press conference.
The reopening framework, which was announced last week, will allow counties that reach certain metrics around reducing the virus spread to open up more business and services to residents.
The tiered system will enable state officials to determine “what kinds of restrictions would still need to be in place in order to protect as many people as we can [and] to prevent our hospital systems from being overwhelmed,” Lujan Grisham said, while allowing for some flexibility at the county level “if those communities can get their constituents and residents to work a little bit more closely together.”
“We think that’s possible in this framework,” she said.
The “red to green” framework assesses each of the state’s 33 counties by two metrics measured over a two-week period: a test positivity rate at or below 5 percent and eight or fewer cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents. Currently, all but Los Alamos County are at the red level, signifying “very high risk.”
Counties are designated at the green level, signifying “medium risk,” when both the test positivity rate of the county reaches 5 percent or less and the county is experiencing 8 or less new cases per 100,000 residents during the two-week period. Counties that reach one of the two metrics are designated at the yellow level.
As of Monday, Los Alamos County had a test positivity rate of 4.3 percent, but had 13.6 new cases per 100,000 during the last two weeks, according to the Department of Health website. The DOH will update the red to green designations on Wednesday, and will continue updating the metric every two weeks.
“I want to point out that when New Mexico was really doing well, we had about a 3 percent positivity rate. We saw other states as high as 25 and 30 percent positivity rates,” Lujan Grisham said. “We are now seeing many if not most New Mexico communities in that double digit range and we’re seeing the country in as much as 50 percent positivity range.”
For red level counties, essential retail spaces may operate at 25 percent capacity, or serve 75 customers at one time, whichever metric is smaller. Food and drink establishments may operate outdoor dining only at 25 percent capacity, and any establishment serving alcohol must close at 9 p.m. each night. Most other businesses and houses of worship may operate at 25 percent capacity. Close contact businesses may operate at 25 percent capacity or may serve 10 customers at a time, whichever is smaller. Gatherings in red level counties are limited to five people or 10 vehicles.
Yellow level counties will loosen some of those restrictions. Essential retail spaces will still operate at 25 percent capacity, or can serve 125 customers at a time, whichever is smaller. Houses of worship are also limited to 25 percent capacity. Food and drink establishments can increase outdoor dining to 75 percent capacity, and can open indoor dining limited to 25 percent capacity. Establishments serving alcohol can remain open until 10 p.m. Other businesses will still operate at 25 percent capacity and gatherings are limited to 10 people or 25 vehicles.
Essential retail businesses in green level counties can operate at 50 percent capacity, as can houses of worship and most other businesses. Food and drink establishments can operate indoor dining at 50 percent capacity and 75 percent for outdoor dining. Gatherings are limited to 20 people or 100 vehicles.
The statewide mask mandate will remain in place for all counties, regardless of their level.
While the vast majority of the state is currently designated at red, Lujan Grisham noted that opening up businesses again, even at limited capacity, will enable New Mexicans to “again learn to manage this virus—not let it manage us.”
“We’re still going to have to work really hard. This does not mean that New Mexico has no risk,” she said.
90 percent increase in hospitalizations
New Mexico currently ranks fifth in the nation for COVID-19 cases per capita, Scrase said, citing the New York Times’ tracking tool. The state saw a 45 percent increase in cases over the last two weeks ending on Nov. 29. During that period, New Mexico also saw a nearly 90 percent increase in hospitalizations and a 60 percent increase in deaths.
Still, Scrase was cautiously optimistic that the state had reached a plateau at around 2,000 cases a day over the past few days, something he attributed to the two-week reset.
“The case counts have kind of leveled off over Thanksgiving weekend,” Scrase said. “It’s about from the implementation of the reset which is when we expected to see some effect.”
Most of the regions are also seeing new cases level off, but Scrase noted that the Albuquerque Metro region is still seeing significant increases in cases.
“At this point in time, we were doubling every day. And now we’re seeing that steady,” he said, referring to the sharp uptick in new cases the state saw beginning earlier in November. “It’s not the best news in the world for me that we’re steadily seeing 1,800 to 2,200 cases a day, but it’s better than going from 2,000 to 4,000 to 8,000.”
But Scrase warned that the state may see another uptick in cases in the next few weeks as a result of the Thanksgiving weekend.
“With Thanksgiving, we’re not really sure what that impact is going to be,” Scrase said. “We do know what the impact was on Memorial Day, on Fourth of July and Labor Day. All of them were followed by dramatically increased case counts four weeks later, which would put us right at Christmas with respect to Thanksgiving.”
Lujan Grisham said the county-specific approach will “empower local governments and constituents to work more carefully and closely together so that we can move the entire state to green.”
The goal is for counties to steadily move towards green, not go back and forth between levels. The tiered system operating at two-week intervals will enable businesses to better plan for adjusting their operations, she said.
“This is really hard on business. Businesses need predictability. These rules and these standards are really difficult for them to manage,” she said.
She added that some counties could hit the yellow level in a couple of weeks.
“We can move through it fairly quickly and effectively, if we really all do this as productively as we can, together,” she said.
“How well we do in green is completely up to every single New Mexican,” she said. “The more COVID safe practices we engage in, the more we adhere to these efforts and socially distance, the more things that are available —and I’ve never not believed that we can’t do it.”
Lujan Grisham also warned that residents will likely need to make virtual accommodations in lieu of in-person gatherings of family and friends during the holiday season.
“Eliminate those, as painful as it is,” she said. “Try to do that using Zoom, or another mechanism, because that’s how we get through this and save more New Mexicans’ lives and protect our healthcare workers, and our economy and our students.”