While the year started out normally, by July the novel coronavirus was dominating the news and by the second half of 2020 local business owners, mostly restaurants, were caught between the government’s restrictions on occupancy and looking at new ways to serve customers and outdoor seating began popping up at most eateries. School systems had to start figuring out the best way to proceed with beginning the fall semester, and superintendents voiced frustration over what they saw as a lack of direction on the part of the Public Education Department.
The pandemic continued to affect virtually all areas of daily life, including politics and the November election. El Defensor Chieftain has tried to cover not only the local COVID-19 stories, but also whatever or whomever is making the news in any particular week. In wrapping up this year of years, El Defensor Chieftain is looking back at the weekly headlines from 2020. This week, we’re reviewing stories from July through December.
The 54th Legislature was called back the last week of June by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to mend deficits, one of the fallouts of the COVID-19 restrictions. In a 30-12 vote lawmakers approved a spending plan in the neighborhood of $7 billion, which rolled back about $600 million for the next fiscal year, beginning July 1. The New Mexico Department of Finance and Administration will be responsible for allocating funds to local governments. The revised budget reduced spending by four percent for most state agencies. Legislators chose to preserve spending increases for public education, although the $40 million effort to extend the public school calendar by five weeks was scrapped.
In light of an uptick in positive cases throughout the state – more than 12,000 – Gov. Lujan Grisham extended the state’s current strictest emergency public health order through July 15. In addition, “phase two” of the state’s reopening would be on hold until public health conditions warranted further relaxations of restrictions and the state’s gating criteria could once again be met. Accentuating the importance of wearing face-coverings, Lujan Grisham announced that the state will aggressively enforce the mandatory face-covering requirement for all residents in public places. In accordance with state law, violators will be subject to a $100 fine.
Governor says transmission rate is unacceptable. In a virtual repeat of the previous week’s COVID-19 briefing, the governor warned New Mexicans of the risks in not following directives laid down by the Department of Health. She reiterated that the quickest way to see businesses return to normal was to faithfully adhere to the wearing of face coverings, social distancing of six feet, washing hands and to reduce out-of-the-home trips.
Rio Grande is facing a tough year. In early March, New Mexico water managers were cautiously optimistic about snow levels and spring runoff on the Rio Grande. But by May, federal and regional agencies were predicting that summer river flows would be well below average. By the end of June, agencies were supplementing the river with water from storage to meet demand. Some stretches of the Rio Grande south of Socorro were completely dry. The water operations manager for the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District said it was shaping up to be a bad year on the Rio Grande, “probably the worst we’ve experienced here in at least 45 years.”
Restrictions “a tough pill to swallow.” The governor reenacted a return to the emergency public health restrictions on high-contact indoor environments where face coverings are not worn, such as restaurants. Both restaurants and breweries could operate outdoor seating at 50 percent as determined by the fire code, as well as curbside and carry-out.
Regents extend Wells’ contract. The New Mexico Tech Board of Regents announced on Tuesday that the contract for President Stephen G. Wells has been extended for another five years, beginning in July 2021. The Regents’ decision cited the top-ranking and academic accolades the university has earned from prestigious national sources during Wells’ tenure as president.
State drops hammer; suspends food permits. Eight New Mexico restaurants had their foodservice permits suspended by the state’s Environment Department for allowing dine-in service in violation of current public health orders. The department held that the businesses were endangering the health of their employees and customers. NMED followed the Food Service and Sanitation Act which authorizes the state to immediately suspend a permit if “conditions within a food service establishment present a substantial danger of illness, serious physical harm or death to consumers who might patronize the food service establishment.”
MRGCD to release stored water. Since mid-June, virtually all flow through the middle Rio Grande valley, from Cochiti to Elephant Butte, was due to water released from upstream reservoirs, which was not sufficient. To alleviate the crisis facing irrigators, the MRGCD began working with the State to use approximately 38,000 acre-feet of Rio Grande Compact water being held in El Vado Reservoir as debit water owed to Elephant Butte Reservoir. The amount of water was relatively small, and the Rio Grande was still experiencing exceptionally dry and difficult conditions. The water must be managed very carefully so that no drop goes to waste, said officials
Veguita Health Center closed due to lack of funding. Fewer than 15 months after its opening, the Veguita Health Care Clinic in northern Socorro County closed its doors. Since the center opened last year Socorro County, which owns the structure, paid anywhere from $82,000 – $84,000 total to help keep the center operational which, in addition to the contractual amount of $59,999.99, included utilities, maintenance, insurance and security. During its June 23 meeting, the Socorro County Commission voted 3-2 in favor of discontinuing that contract as of the end of June.
With less than two weeks to go, the New Mexico Public Education Department announced updates to the state’s plan for the safe and methodical reentry into school for students and educators this fall amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The state earlier this summer announced plans for a hybrid model of instruction to begin in school districts on August 3, adopting a phased approach based on the public health conditions and epidemiological data available at the time. Accordingly, school districts and charter schools may continue to exercise local decision-making regarding the start date of school and online learning.
Socorro City Council approved the 2021 budget. At a special meeting July 29, the Socorro City Council approved the municipality’s budget for the 2020-2021 fiscal year. The budget includes regular maintenance and operational items, as well as a one percent annual salary anniversary increase, a short-term salary adjustment for all full-time and part-time permanent city employees, a 2.5 percent salary increase and minimum wage increase, effective January 1, 2021.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and state health officials extended the state’s emergency public health order for another month and keep intact existing public health restrictions and guidelines while the state continues to combat the spread of COVID-19. The extended public health order streamlined the categories of business operations. Wineries and distilleries would be classified alongside other food and drink establishments such as restaurants, meaning outdoor and patio seating is permitted while indoor seating and service are not, and outdoor tables must be separated by six feet of distance. Also unchanged is the statewide requirement that all individuals wear face coverings in public and that business operators require customers to wear face coverings upon entrance.
Socorro School Board addresses Hendrix post. The Socorro School Board held a special meeting on Aug. 10 in what ultimately led to a discussion regarding the current safety measures in place for Socorro students going forward, but also amounted to a public forum in relation to a recent Facebook post from Superintendent Ron Hendrix that caused controversy reaching as far as Albuquerque. In that post, which Hendrix confirmed with El Defensor Chieftain were not his own words but rather part of a meme he reposted on Aug. 7 which sarcastically minimized COVID-19 precautionary measures. At least two individuals initially called for Hendrix to resign, and another individual seconded that opinion. Hendrix said the meme had “absolutely nothing to do with my schools.”
NMED to require immediate disclosure of positive COVID-19 cases. The New Mexico Environment Department filed an emergency rule that requires employers to report positive COVID-19 cases to NMED within four hours of being notified of the case. NMED Cabinet Secretary James Kenney said by requiring employers to report positive cases in a timely manner, the state was able to more rapidly respond to workplaces, providing immediate guidance and support to employers and preventing the spread of COVID-19 beyond the infected employees.
Governor sets target for COVID-19 cases. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham warned that with the Labor Day weekend approaching, the risk of infections increases, especially through family gatherings and encouraged New Mexicans “stick to the five-person limit.” She pointed out that New Mexico now meets every standard but one: the average number of new virus cases each day. The state added the requirement earlier this summer but didn’t set a specific numerical target until now – of 168 cases a day. The seven-day rolling average stood at 174 new cases a day. She said the state’s reopening criteria must be sustained over time. In addition to continuing to require masks or face-coverings, the current public health order in effect through August prohibits gatherings of more than five people, bans indoor dining at restaurants and limits the operation of retail stores, salons and many other businesses to 25 percent of capacity.
Magdalena prepares students for remote learning. Armed with tablets and laptops, students were prepared to tackle a new school year in a new way. Students in third through 12th grades were to be given a Lenovo Thinkpad with a security feature built-in. Students in Kindergarten through second grade would be receiving tablets. Principal Leslie Clark said some progress is being made on creating hotspots in Alamo and outlying areas. Otherwise, the school was providing flash drives loaded with course materials and instruction for those students without phone or internet service.
City Council talks mill levy, ICIP in latest meeting. The latest version of Socorro’s Infrastructure Capital Improvement Program consisted of a list provided by the council in regard to what infrastructure projects the city should prioritize over a certain amount of time. Past ICIP projects in Socorro have included a refurbished lift station in Hefner Addition, the RV park, animal stalls and the rodeo arena, sealing and striping airport runways, installation of fire hydrants at Cottonwood Valley Charter and completion of upgrades at the wastewater treatment plant. Also, a Mill Levy overview provided by Socorro General Hospital, $1 million equals $1 for every $1,000 of taxable property value, and not the assessed value. The current Mill Levy is $4.25 million. The Mill Levy is used for the operation and maintenance of the hospital and any other county facility eligible to receive funds under the Hospital Funding Act.
County to fund school hotspots. Socorro County schools with students that have poor or nonexistent internet connectivity would be getting help in the form of hotspots. The Socorro County Board of Commissioners approved the expenditure of $20,000 to pay for the establishment of internet hotspot scholarships for the school districts of Alamo, Magdalena, and Socorro, as well as La Promesa Elementary. Each received $5,000 to establish their own WiFi hotspots. A hotspot is a location where people may get Internet access via a wireless local area network using a router connected to an internet service provider.
Although there was no parade, no rodeo, no exhibits, no royalty, not even cotton candy, nothing kept the young livestock growers of Socorro County from going for a blue ribbon. 2020’s Socorro County Fair was what one participant called an “in-and-out and grab-and-go” affair for Future Farmers of America and 4H members. The only persons allowed in Greenwood Barn were the exhibitors and minimal family members. In light of state restrictions and social distancing, Nathan Ritter, president of the fair board, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Restaurants to re-open, re-boot. Changes to the emergency public health order went into effect at the end of August. Changes included indoor restaurant dining at 25 percent maximum occupancy. Tables – inside or outside – must be spaced at least six feet apart, and no more than six patrons are permitted at a single table. Houses of worship could operate at 40 percent of maximum occupancy, an increase from 25 percent.
Pandemic relief funds coming to city, county. Local government grants were allocated for the City of Socorro and Socorro County. The City is receiving $242,061 and the county government has been allocated $45,000. The local government grants can be used for child care assistance, purchase of personal protective equipment, sanitization of buildings, public service announcements, and personnel costs for public safety and health officials. Grants specifically to support businesses include $198,000 for those in the City of Socorro and $26,093 for businesses in the county.
County’s GRT rises in second quarter. The New Mexico Economic Development Department released its County Reports, which showed that the county’s overall Gross Receipts Tax total rose by 11 percent in the last three months of Fiscal Year 2020 – April, May, and June. The County Reports project is an initiative by the EDD to offer more comprehensive data about spending, unemployment, and wages to local communities. Deputy Cabinet EDD Secretary Jon Clark explained that the data shows the state might be more resilient than first expected, as consumer spending as shown through gross receipts dipped in many counties the last quarter, but remained more steady over the 12-month fiscal year.
Raffle to replace San Miguel Fiesta. The San Miguel Fiesta, the festival commemorating the feast of St. Michael the Archangel, one of the major community events every year, was yet another casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s celebration was canceled. The fiesta is the major fundraising event for the church. Deacon Nick Keller said the raffle has to suffice for raising needed funds for paying for liability insurance on San Miguel, as well as all the mission churches.
Socorro schools return to in-person learning. San Antonio Elementary, Parkview Elementary and Midway Elementary return to in-person learning. Magdalena chose not to return to in-person classes, even though they were authorized to do so. The Alamo Navajo Community School did not either, because it must follow the policies of the larger Navajo Nation, which has had one of the worst infection rates in the nation. New Mexico PED had only authorized students from pre-kindergarten to grades 5 to return for in-person learning and they are only permitted in reduced numbers. Grades 6 to 8 will return next, depending on the status of the virus. Grades 9 to 12 will return last.
New Mexico Tech partners with Parnell Pharmaceuticals for COVID-19 nasal spray. According to an announcement by Parnell, Nomovid™ Nasal Spray will be, once FDA-approved, easy-to-use, low-cost, and quickly made available over-the-counter for consumers. Nomovid is based upon a substance licensed by Parnell from New Mexico Tech to treat drug-resistant bacteria and fungi such as MRSA and Candida auris. The novel material attacks lipids in cell and viral envelopes and has been tested against the novel coronavirus by an independent laboratory. The new material was developed in the Biology Department at New Mexico Tech by biomedical post-doc Danielle Turner and biology professor Snezna Rogelj, PhD.
Sheriff’s office continues to act as Alamo’s law enforcement. Crime prevention on the Alamo reservation comes down to “everybody has a gun,” according to Socorro County Sheriff William Armijo. In his report to the county commission last week, Armijo said he gets little assistance from tribal police. “We do have an MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with the Navajo Nation,” Armijo said. He said about half of his deputies are currently cross-commissioned with the Navajo Nation under the MOU. “We, right now, basically are the only law enforcement that has been working on the reservation, the Alamo site,” Armijo said. The nearest active tribal police stations are in Crownpoint, New Mexico, on the big reservation, and at nearby To’Hajiilee.
Socorro coaches thought they were fired en masse. At a recent Socorro school board meeting, Hendrix said he suggested that all of the Warriors’ varsity coaches reapply for their positions, which is usually the polite way of telling a coach they had been let go. But Hendrix responded that it was simply part of a larger, written initiative at Socorro to build character, integrity and sportsmanship within the school’s athletic programs. He wanted the coaches to sign off on this program’s mission statement before they’d get a new coaching contract. Hendrix emphasized that coaches do still have their jobs as the district scrambled to explain what had happened. He said it was a combination of a reversal of position, plus some misunderstanding. The blowback from the board meeting was considerable. Several dozen people protested outside the consolidated school district headquarters, voicing their opposition to the district’s handling of the situation.
County OKs more hotspot funding. School districts were finding that the county’s funding of $5,000 for four hot spots is not meeting the needs of remote-learning students. At its September 22 meeting, the Socorro County Board of County Commissioners approved a second round of hot spot scholarships for Socorro and Magdalena Schools. Magdalena Municipal School District and La Promesa Elementary School were both receiving another $5,000. Socorro Consolidated School District currently has less of a need and was getting $1,250.
La Promesa staff member tests positive for COVID-19. A staff member at an elementary school in the far southern reaches of the Belen Consolidated Schools district has tested positive for COVID-19 after a round of random surveillance testing. BCS Superintendent Diane Vallejos on Thursday, Oct. 1. “The individual was asymptomatic.” Vallejos said as an extra precaution, the dining area at the school was also closed and cleaned since the employee had been in there but had not been in close contact with anyone in that area.
Police received reports of local political yard sign thefts. Police Chief Mike Winders said theft, or larceny, of a sign would result in a misdemeanor charge if under $500. Anything over $500 would result in a felony charge.
NM Environmental Dept. closes Socorro field office. The New Mexico Environment Department permanently closed its field office in Socorro located at 103 Neel Street. This field office served as a primary hub for approximately 230 regulated entities and offered services including permitting and inspections for local restaurants, temporary food service events, residential and commercial septic systems and public pools and spas. In the meantime, in-person transactions, including submitting permit applications or modifications and payment of permit and application fees, may be completed at the Los Lunas office. Early voting began across the state and in Socorro County.
Homecoming party shuts down campus. Following police reports of at least one gathering for an off-campus party involving somewhere between 50-100 Tech students over the weekend Tech President Stephen Wells decided to err on the side of caution by closing the campus for two weeks beginning Monday, Oct. 19. All classes were to be held online only for the period. In addition, all students who attended the party were instructed to stay off-campus, quarantine, get tested for COVID-19, and stay quarantined until they receive a negative test result.
Two steps up, one COVID-19 step back. An amended New Mexico emergency public health order went into effect putting renewed restrictions on restaurant hours, mass gatherings, hotel occupancy and travelers’ quarantine.
Faith Over Fear protest held in Socorro. Randy Corely, the pastor at Family Christian Center, organized the protest with the help of churches and religious leaders from Valencia County. Many of the 100-plus attendees were seen not following health department guidelines designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus and Mayor Bhasker said the organizer would be cited.
Ocampo was appointed to Socorro City Council. With the vacancy on the city council following the passing of Toby Jaramillo in July, Mayor Bhasker nominated Damien Ocampo to the seat. Ocampo, a longtime high school coach and State Farm Insurance agent, said he would be proud to be able to finish Jaramillo’s term as councilor. The council agreed and he was to be installed at the next meeting.
Chieftain named best little newspaper in New Mexico. El Defensor Chieftain has been named the top small town weekly newspaper in New Mexico for the third time in four years, winning the General Excellence award in the Class 2 weekly category at the New Mexico Press Association virtual awards banquet. The General Excellence award is the highest award given out by the NMPA. Overall, El Defensor Chieftain received 14 awards, including seven first place awards.
Voter turnout high for county; election day ran smoothly. Voter turnout for Tuesday’s General Election in Socorro County was nearly double what the clerk’s office has seen in recent years. During early voting, Chief Deputy Clerk Michelle Paz said almost 3,000 voters cast ballots at the county’s two early voting locations. As of 11 p.m., Tuesday, 7,159 ballots had been cast in Socorro County — 62 percent of the county’s 11,545 voters. Of those, 3,222 were early votes and 1,939 were absentee.
Two Lemitar farms win coveted chile awards. Rosales Farms came out as the top winner of the 2020 Great New Mexico Chile Taste-Off. Coming in third was Glen Duggins’s 5 Star Chile, also of Lemitar. They were two of the 12 New Mexico Certified Chile growers – from Hatch to Farmington – that competed in this year’s contest.
Veguita Health Clinic to reopen…somewhat. Closed for lack of funding since July, the Veguita Community Health Center was given a new lease on life thanks to a series of teleconferences and in-person discussions between the state, the Socorro County Commission, and Presbyterian Medical Services. At the Oct. 30 commission meeting, a contract with PMS was approved, giving the green light to move forward with the re-opening. The clinic would have limited hours through the next year, depending on the amount of clientele.
Navajo Nation quarantines COVID-19 patients at Days Inn. Days Inn began to exclusively house COVID-19 positive patients and others who are in quarantine from Alamo. In a precautionary move, Mayor Bhasker ordered entrances to the motel closed to California Street and Neal Avenue until he was able to meet with representatives from Alamo, the New Mexico Department of Health and security company Pacific Architects and Engineering, commonly known as PAE.
Resetting public health restrictions, for now. A new system for reopening businesses announced by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham will be based on 7-day gating criteria. The system is color-coded from red to yellow to green and allows local communities to lower some restrictions on mass gatherings, restaurant dining, attendance at religious services and some nonessential businesses. If the positive cases in a county start dropping. Counties will operate under one of three levels: Red, signifying high average test positivity and high average of new cases per-capita; Yellow, signifying low average test positivity or low average of new cases per-capita; and Green, signifying low average test positivity and low average of new cases per-capita.
Flocking south for the winter. Although the Festival of the Cranes was canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, thousands of sandhill cranes, Canadian snow geese and other wintering birds returned to the wetlands of Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.
Days Inn to be used by PAE. Mayor Bhasker reopened access to Days Inn to allow PAE personnel to enter and leave the motel’s parking lot.
Socorro to start utilizing rapid testing for local businesses. Mayor Bhasker said the city is following the governor’s lead in trying to turn the city from red to green. The rapid testing gives a positive/negative answer in 10 minutes at no cost to the businesses.” The test, COVID-19 Antigen, costs $25 with another $25 for a processing fee. The city has set aside $30,000 to cover the testing costs. JC Trujillo and Positive Outcomes introduced the idea of rapid testing to the city.
PAE to no longer utilize Days Inn. After only three weeks, PAE decided to pull out of Days Inn, citing a dearth of COVID-19 positive patients from Alamo.
Gov. signs $330 million relief package in special session. Small businesses are getting some economic relief as a result of the passage of House Bill 1 at the legislature’s special session the last week in November. The package provides for $100 million in grants for small businesses in New Mexico. The grant program will be administered by the New Mexico Finance Authority.
Governor urges testing; crisis order in place, Due to a sustained surge in COVID-19 infections and deaths, the New Mexico Department of Health issued the two new public health orders aimed at ensuring that medical providers make best use of their time and facilities.
Positive Outcomes and the City of Socorro collaborated on rapid testing for the coronavirus each day for a week at Walmart. Just like the PCR test, the rapid test is also a nasal swab. For the week-long testing 700 tests were ordered.
Alamo receives first vaccines. With the arrival of 30 doses of COVID-19 vaccine, medical personnel at the Alamo Wellness Center would be feeling a bit less stress. The two-dose vaccine will cover 15 front-line workers of the several dozen employees at the center. While the clinic has no beds, the clinic handles the testing and determines if a patient needs to quarantine at home or elsewhere.
Town of Gabriella in Catron County goes on the market for $1.6 million. The 12-plus buildings in the “ghost town” of Gabriella take up the better part of 58 acres between Datil and Horse Springs off Highway 12. The site, constructed by Larry Iams, has been open to the public on selected weekends beginning in 2016. The listing is through Sotheby’s International Realty in Santa Fe.