Chaves County officials are in a “pause” mode regarding state orders that still have some local businesses closed and many operating in a restricted fashion.
The state closure orders led county officials to participate in rallies, pass resolutions and make public pleas for business reopenings in this area, where COVID-19 cases have remained low and now total 34.
County Manager Stanton Riggs acknowledged that he has talked with Eddy County officials about its proposed course of action against the executive orders, but said no decisions have been made.
On May 7, the Eddy County commissioners authorized efforts to formalize a coalition of counties, cities, municipalities and area legislators to file a lawsuit to “address the equality and equitable application of the broad emergency orders in order to protect the civil liberties, including free trade, of the citizens and constituents within the coalition.”
“We haven’t seen anything yet, but we are expecting to soon,” Riggs said. “It would be nice to get something going to get back to normal, or close to normal.”
Eddy County Manager Allen Davis said the county has received support from Lea County and has spoken with Mayor Dennis Kintigh, as well as Riggs. He said Kintigh, Riggs and some legislators have indicated interest in the effort.
The gubernatorial administration eased some public health restrictions May 16 to allow limited openings of “non-essential” retailers and offices — provided they abide by published COVID-19 safe practices — and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham indicated during a Wednesday online press conference that more restrictions would be lifted on June 1 if case numbers, spread rates and other factors continue to stabilize or improve.
But Davis said his county and some others he has spoken with still think action could be warranted.
“The belief is that the application of the orders is being applied and enforced more as if it were law, rather than a state order,” he said “Laws can only be enacted by legislation, not under emergency authority. The question about equitable application and protection of all civil liberties still requires being addressed as well.”
Sheriff Mike Herrington said he has not given out any new letters authorizing business reopenings after distributing about 25 in early May. One of those letters was to Home Depot, which was then issued a “cease and desist” order on May 9 by New Mexico State Police after the agency received a complaint. The following weekend, Home Depot and other retailers could reopen up to 25% building capacity in compliance with eased state orders.
Herrington said he issued letters for business owners facing bankruptcy, lost homes or loan defaults if they had safe plans for operating and their activities were similar to other businesses allowed to operate under the state orders. Some gyms also were given a letter, although gyms are not expected to be given state authorization for reopening until June 1.
Herrington also said that he is not enforcing the May 16 state order requiring people to wear a face covering whenever they are outside their homes unless they are eating, drinking or exercising.
He said he would enforce the order in gatherings, such as commission meetings, or when he and his officers are responding to a call that requires contact with the elderly or other people characterized as being at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19.
But he said he and his officers are not going to respond to calls to enforce face covering rules at businesses.
He also said that he has not heard from the Office of the Governor regarding his calls or social media posts asking her to work with him to allow businesses to reopen safely.
Herrington did acknowledge, however, that members of the New Mexico Attorney General’s staff have contacted him.
Herrington said he has received emails that indicate “You need to make sure you are enforcing the governor’s orders, and I say, we don’t enforce them.”
Lujan Grisham has said during her press conferences that “there will be consequences” if the orders are not followed. Nora Sackett, communications director for the Office of the Governor, has said that state orders have the effect of law, and that county resolutions or decisions do not override them.
One of the reasons that local officials give for wanting different orders in Chaves County or southeast New Mexico is the difference in case numbers and severity of cases.
The county has reported only 34 of the state’s 6,472 COVID-19 cases. According to the New Mexico Department of Health, five COVID cases have been in local hospitals, with four of the five reported as recovered. One of the five, a man in his 60s who had underlying conditions, passed away. The second fatality recorded for Chaves County is a woman in her 80s who died in a hospital outside of New Mexico. The number of people recovered among the remaining 32 diagnosed with COVID-19 was not available from the Department of Health by press time.
Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at email@example.com.