The recent spike in COVID-19 cases is causing alarm among city officials as they hasten to manage the public crisis while illnesses among city staff cause further problems for the Fire Department.
City Councilor Peggy Sue Martinez spoke during a Dec. 1 Public Safety Committee meeting about the current number of cases among the public in Española.
“The concerns I have right now deal with the COVID situation, especially in the 87532 zip code which is a zip code that is the older part of Española and part of Santa Clara. You know, the numbers have gone up to close to 600,” she said. “At the beginning of October they were at 68 so it’s a pretty massive jump in 60 days, it’s just very, very concerning what’s going on with that.”
As of Tuesday, there were 685 cases of COVID in the 87532 zip code, an increase of 1,007 percent from the 68 cases at the beginning of October.
There were 17 cases in city staff, including four cases in the police department, seven in public works, three in the streets department, one in general services, one in city hall and one in the fire department.
Fire Dept. gutted
Española Fire Chief Ron Padilla said Tuesday all firefighters were back on the schedule. Three firefighters were out of work on COVID-related leave on Dec. 1. At least one firefighter had tested positive. Another, who had tested negative but is awaiting the results of a second test, was quarantined for having symptoms. A third firefighter wais self-isolating following exposure and is awaiting test results.
“When all that happened, as the fire chief, I canceled all vacations and annual leaves for firefighters that were on duty and gonna take leave for some part of November and the rest of December,” Padilla said. “These guys have stepped up to the plate, they’ve covered their shifts as well as having two non-certified firefighters on duty with no training. They’re covering those shifts and giving the public of the city of Española adequate fire protection.
“I gotta tip my hats to these young men and women and the lieutenants that are trying to make it all work, as well as myself and the deputy chief to make sure that coverage is there.”
Padilla said the staff weren’t happy with having their vacations canceled but that they understand the need to provide adequate protection to city residents.
“If this COVID does not slow down in the next couple of weeks, we’re in for a storm,” he said. “My staff that are sitting on an ambulance, these guys are touching these patients, they are working with these patients and they still come back the next shift. They’ve stayed away, they’ve slept in their campers, they’ve slept in their garages, they’ve stayed away from their families for days on end so they can be into work to provide that protection. So I would just like to say thank you to them for trusting me and moving to the next step to keep doing what we need to do for the City of Española.”
Even as cases have skyrocketed over 1,000 percent, the question of how to enforce public health orders is still an open one for the police chief, despite being 9 months into a pandemic.
During her public comments Martinez spoke about the lack of mask-wearing in public spaces like the line outside Wal-Mart. Grocery stores and all other businesses must now limit customer capacity due to a state-wide public health order, resulting in lines of people waiting outside.
Councilor Manny Martinez repeated her sentiments and asked about enforcement of mask rules.
“I just don’t understand these people not willing to accept a mask from Chief Padilla or anyone else,” he said.
Manny Martinez was referring to Padilla’s observation that tensions around the mandates were high and that people often just refused to comply.
“I do believe the governor did actually impose a fine for people that are caught not wearing masks,” Manny Martinez said. “Is it time to say to those people, either you can accept the mask I’m giving you, or you can accept the ticket I’m giving you?”
“I don’t know if that’s the leverage that we need to do, it’s awful to think that we have to actually do that to help protect each other,” he said. “I see it as a disease that’s out of control and all for the apparent reason that people aren’t willing to do some minimal stuff to prevent it. I’m sorry, staying home is a very easy thing, I think, to do. Wearing a mask, how hard can that be? To wear a mask when you’re in public?”
Peggy Martinez replied to express her support for fines.
“It’s time for drastic measures, I think, to get this serious, take it more serious, our community’s health and well-being is dependent on us making some moves here.”
During his comment period, Police Chief Roger Jimenez discussed some of the issues preventing the police department from issuing citations.
“Right now we do not have assistance with the prosecution of said orders or said violations, meaning that if our officers issue a citation then it’s our agency and our officer who have to prosecute those violations, without any assistance from the AG’s office or the DA’s office,” he said.
“We’re willing to do that, however, we’re still kind of unsure and unclear exactly how far the enforcement action they would like us to extend,” he said. “Meaning, if I pull someone over for a traffic violation, and they refuse to give us their identification, I can arrest them and charge them for concealing identity. We did not get a clear answer from the governor’s office exactly how far they want us to go and if we are being asked to take these people into custody for a civil mask order, so those are the things we’re waiting on.”
He referred to the New Mexico State Police public health officer as being a primary source for enforcement but that his officers would be “more than happy to go out there and try to do some education.” In his experience, people would wear their masks in the police’s presence but would take them off when they left.
The issue of administering the municipal court during the pandemic was also a topic of discussion during Municipal Judge Stephen Salazar’s public comment period. The court is currently conducting business by telephone with people signing documents curb-side. However, sometimes access to phones can be difficult to secure and defendants appear late or can fail to appear. Councilor Manny Martinez asked if the court was exercising any leniency in light of the tough conditions.
“Well, absolutely,” Salazar said. “And everything is case-by-case. I mean, some people forget, and it’s just really hard to authenticate anybody. I mean, if somebody misses court, they could say, ‘Well, I didn’t have a phone that day,’ It’s hard. It’s the new normal we have to deal with but you know, case-by-case situation, definitely, we will be as compassionate as we possibly can.”
City Hall remains closed. Employees have their temperatures screened when they arrive at work, they are required to wear masks and are asked not to have inter-departmental contact. Anyone with city business should contact the city at 747-6100 to get information on the current procedures.