By Robert Nott and Daniel Chacon, The Santa Fe New Mexican
For a while there, Sen. Martin Hickey, D-Albuquerque, wasn’t wearing a mask during this year’s legislative session.
Then one day, he was — after he was out sick for a while because he contracted COVID-19.
Here and there, you see signs others are being careful, like the cleaning person who had his mask tucked under his chin until one other person approached him in an otherwise empty chamber, or the sign on the door of one senator’s office that reads, “No More Than Three (3) People In Office at One Time.”
Within the office sit two Senate assistants, both wearing masks.
But that’s just here and there.
The unmasked greatly outnumber the masked in the state Capitol, currently teeming with hundreds of visitors nearly every day — a sign, perhaps, that some have grown to accept the respiratory disease as part of day-to-day operations.
This year’s session marks the first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic without masking, vaccination or testing requirements to gain entry to the state Capitol.
And that suits some people just fine.
Casey Dalbor, who gathered with some similarly unmasked friends in the Roundhouse on Friday, said it’s not that he thinks people believe the worst is over, but rather “it’s the new norm; it’s just part of daily life now.”
Two friends joining him — Ruth Muller and Angelica Serrano — agreed. All three of them have already had a bout with COVID-19, and while they don’t think the danger is entirely gone, they feel it’s time to accept it and keep moving on.
Their attitude may be typical of many more roaming through the Roundhouse. Walk around it any day of the week and you can make your own count of how many people are wearing protective masks.
On some days it’s about one in 30. Or maybe one in 40. On other days, make that one in 50.
Pandemic? What pandemic?
Nearly three years after the respiratory disease moved into the state and set off statewide shutdowns of businesses, schools, nonprofits and gatherings of all kinds, you might see the state Capitol as an “all clear” flag of security.
Still, not all is well, if you look at the statistics.
To date, New Mexico — which once imposed restrictive public health mandates requiring the wearing of masks in public and the practice of social distancing (six feet apart, if you remember) — has tallied up 66,445 cases of COVID-19 and close to 9,000 deaths from the disease, according to the state Department of Health website.
And 68 New Mexicans died between Dec. 20 and January 16, according to the website.
That’s more than two a day, and more than enough to convince at least a few people that it’s better to wear a mask than risk getting sick.
One of the few lawmakers to be seen wearing a mask just about all the time is Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo.
“I think we’re still in a pandemic,” he said in an interview. “We’re in close quarters with a lot of different people and honestly I don’t think the ventilation is very good.”
He said he thinks the entire country is letting its guard down when it comes to fending off the virus.
“People just tuned it out,” he said, making the virus sound like a radio station people got tired of listening to.
McQueen may be in the minority on the issue — he is one of less than 10 out of 112 lawmakers you can generally find behind a mask — but he’s not alone when it comes to navigating the Roundhouse in what Patrick Allen, the state’s new Department of Health secretary, calls a “trans-pandemic period” of adjustment.
COVID-19, Allen said in an interview, “still causes much more death than influenza does, but it’s no longer the same degree of an emergency as it was.
“I think the early phase of the emergency was characterized by the fact we couldn’t each individually protect ourselves,” he said. “We all had to work together to protect each other.
“And I think across the country we did maybe a good job of that early and it began to break down a little bit later as people got more frustrated and things got politicized and all of that.”
Still, some people are taking precautions when they come through the doors of the state Capitol. One recent afternoon, U.S. Air Force veteran Daniel Johnsen rolled through the front doors in a wheelchair — and wearing a mask. The Kansas City native said he assumed masks were still required “so I brought it. I don’t mind wearing it.”
He didn’t take it off as he watched dozens of people walk by him without masks. He said he thinks some people are being a bit complacent about it all.
“I don’t know what it is going to take to resolve everybody being safe,” he said. So far, he hasn’t gotten COVID-19.
Carter Bundy, a union activist and regular presence for years at the Capitol, also wore a mask as he moved through the lobby of the building.
“It’s about minimizing risks,” he said in an interview. “I try not to be indoors without a mask with a lot of people around.”
He said he would not judge anyone who does not wear a mask.
“Others get to make their choice,” he said.
Asked if he felt others were letting their guard down, he said it’s hard to answer. “I think getting boosted, wearing a mask, is more likely to yield good health results,” Bundy said.
All the same, for all that, he said he got COVID-19 in October.
Then there were those who weren’t wearing masks but had them handy in case someone got a little too close.
One was Cheri Dotson, a former school nurse who now represents AARP New Mexico. While she entered the Capitol without a mask Friday morning, she quickly donned one as a visitor approached.
“I’m wearing it indoors, especially in these tiny [committee] rooms with very little ventilation,” she said in an interview. “And they are so crowded.”
She and her husband have avoided COVID-19 so far by getting vaccinated and wearing masks, but she has friends and family members who got it.
She said she doesn’t think people believe the pandemic is over. But, she said, “I think people have gotten numb. They’re tired of the restrictions. We in the health care industry cannot get numb.”
Sen. Harold Pope, D-Albuquerque, is one of those who sometimes wears a mask and sometimes doesn’t. Pope said in an interview he’ll try to wear a face mask when he believes the setting warrants it, such as in committee rooms with a lot of people.
“I’m just trying to be careful and cautious when I can,” he said. “I’ve gotten all the vaccines. I just had the bivalent a few months ago, but the reality is folks are still getting sick.”
Pope said he had long been told that germs can spread easily in the Roundhouse. “It’s really like a petri dish, right?” he asked.
“You can walk down the stairs and [touch] an arm rail or anything and get the sniffles, get everything, so that’s where I’m really trying to be careful,” he said.