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Frustrations flare over New Mexico public health orders

Protesters gathered Thursday at Animas Valley Mall in Farmington
Some residents and business owners in San Juan County, N.M., are growing frustrated with public health orders that have slowed down the reopening of businesses.

FARMINGTON – A group gathered Thursday in front of the Animas Valley Mall in Farmington to protest the public health restrictions on businesses in San Juan County, as local frustrations around the state’s public health orders escalate.

Those in attendance, including state Rep. James Strickler, R-Farmington, demanded all businesses in the area be allowed to reopen.

It’s an example of increasing concerns in San Juan County, which remains a step behind the rest of the state’s loosening restrictions. On Wednesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced retail businesses in San Juan, McKinley and Cibola counties would be able to offer curbside pickup, while the rest of the state can begin allowing in-person visits at limited capacity.

In response to questions about local versus state powers to open businesses, San Juan County Sheriff Shane Ferrari released a letter posted on Facebook on Thursday afternoon outlining the governor’s authority to issues public health orders, in coordination with the secretary of health, secretary of public safety and director of Homeland Security and Emergency Management.

“Local governments and sheriffs have no authority in public health orders,” Ferrari said. “I can’t override them, and I don’t enforce them.”

In the letter, Ferrari said the county had been asked by the state officials to implement the Riot Act, which was used to authorize and enforce the city of Gallup’s lockdown. The law requires cities and counties to request the state’s help in implementing roadblocks and curfews.

“Local leadership has rightfully declined,” he said. “I have also been asked if I needed additional State Police assistance. I respectfully declined the offer.”

In hopes of reducing the spread of the virus, Gallup, in McKinley County and on the border of the Navajo Nation, was under lockdown from May 1 to May 10 at the request of the city’s mayor and with support of Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez.

The northwest corner of the state remains a hot spot for COVID-19 cases. As of Friday, San Juan County – with 1,274 cases – had the second highest number of cases in the state, behind McKinley County with 1,787 cases.

According to Ferrari’s letter, if it were not for city and county officials “pleading with the governor’s office, we would still be under the original order for two more weeks.”

The protests and sheriff’s letter come a week after New Mexico Sheriff’s Association President Tony Mace and State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce both sent letters asking U.S. Attorney General William Barr to look into Lujan Grisham’s public health orders. The letters say the health orders – which have resulted in prolonged closures of small businesses – violate residents’ civil rights.

“The governor has been discriminatory in her policies, keeping big-box corporate giants open – draining New Mexico dollars out of state – while shutting down mom and pop locally owned establishments,” Mace said in his letter. “This is not only preferential treatment for the big-box stores but a violation of the civil rights of our small businesses owners whose livelihoods are now in free fall.”

As the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic worsens and cases continue, public health and local officials are left searching for a middle ground.

“It’s difficult to balance our safety from an invisible predator and maintain our already dwindling economy. My deputies respond to investigate unattended deaths suspected of COVID-19 and console their families, while our friends and families lose their businesses because of overreaching health orders,” Ferrari wrote.


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