In an Aug. 27 COVID-19 press conference, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham commented on what she saw to be a total lack of mask usage in Española.
“Last week I traveled to Northern New Mexico,” she said “I saw a lot of activity in Española, traveling through main street as we were going north. I didn’t see a single mask, not one – not in a parking lot, not outside a grocery store that we passed, not at a convenience store, not at a gas station, not by someone in a car, not hanging on the rearview mirror, not on a wrist, not as people were walking – nowhere. The only masks I saw were in the car I was in.”
Mayor Javier Sanchez was busy working at his Española restaurant La Cocina during the press conference.
“I started getting text messages, like, ‘Hey, did you hear the governor put Española on blast?’,” he said Monday. “I finally found a clip where she talks about it, it was like a kick in the stomach.
“There were two things that bothered me most,” the mayor said. “One of them was the tone with which it was said. It could be said that it is very condescending. But the other thing that bothered me was the fact that I know how hard we work during this pandemic. That lack of understanding for those of us who are working day in and day out—to make such a dismissive statement like that, is what I hear from her the most.”
Sanchez released a lengthy statement Aug. 28 criticizing the governor’s comments. According to data in that statement, with 15,148 tests performed and 353 positive cases, Rio Arriba’s test positivity rate is currently 2.3 percent, one percent lower than the state’s overall positivity rate of 3.3 percent. Española Hospital is currently treating zero patients for COVID-19.
“Like so many others, the Governor has chosen to stroll by Española and make blanket assumptions about our people,” Sanchez wrote in his response. “To say that we have to work harder goes without saying. Every loss of life due to COVID-19 is tragic. We must do everything we can to prevent it.”
Sanchez states in the release to take the higher road everyone must use the parameters set forth by the method.
“Using anecdotal evidence to say that ‘no one was wearing masks’ and conclude that we’re careless tells a story clouded by prejudice and falsehood,” Sanchez said Monday.
Jake Baca, a lifelong Rio Arriba County resident and patron of Sanchez’ restaurant, also disagrees with the governor’s assessment.
“She could not have driven through this town with her eyes open and not seen a single mask,” he said.
Every business he visits requires mask usage, and compliance is more or less universal, Baca said.
The governor was quick to explain her comments in a statement released later in the day Aug. 28.
“My comments were taken as a lack of respect for Española and the work the community has done to fight this virus,” press release states. “I apologize for making that impression. That was not my intent, and I take responsibility for the way my words were conveyed and heard.”
She maintains in the release she saw no masks worn that day all the way through town north and south.
“That doesn’t mean I should have made the point that I did in the way I did it,” the release states. “If my intent was to highlight where we can improve and what we can do better, and it was, then I could have communicated that in a different way, and I should have.”
Sanchez said Monday he didn’t ask for an apology.
“I felt that’s not my place,” he said. “I’m also one person in our community. So I can’t speak for everybody else to either accept it or not accept it.”
Sanchez said the state has more or less effectively communicated with the city about health strategies and regulations, but enforcement resources from state police are lacking, straining city police.
“Police officers are here to respond when people are threatened or when people are not wearing their mask,” he said. “And we need to go to a certain location and do that. When it comes to seeing somebody walking down the street, we’re already dealing with calls for domestic violence, for robberies and all of these other things, to stop somebody who’s walking down the street because they’re not wearing a mask, is just not the highest priority.”
Citizens and police aren’t physically and consciously contradicting the governor’s order, Sanchez said.
“We’re here to enforce all the rules of the state, but when it comes down to it, there has to be some set of priorities,” he said.
Moving forward, Sanchez would like to see the state respond to the pandemic with a more comprehensive approach, including support for workers and students and for mental care, in addition to the state’s robust testing.
“I think that the focus of what is happening should really shift toward the need for high speed internet access for our kids,” he said. “The focus should be on finding jobs for the people who can no longer find them. The focus should be on the fact that this pandemic is going to set back women and minorities far more than it will set back any other group.”