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City to step up enforcement of mask wearing, other COVID-safe practices

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At a special meeting Friday morning, Oct. 30, the Las Cruces City Council voted unanimously to extend for an additional four days Mayor Ken Miyagishima’s emergency order closing all city indoor recreational facilities except the Las Cruces Regional Aquatic Center (because it adheres to state COVID-Safe practice guidelines, the city said) and “increasing security and enforcement … of face covering requirements at public outdoor facilities and in private businesses.”

The mayor issued the proclamation Oct. 27. Under city ordinance, an emergency proclamation is valid for 72 hours and then requires city council approval to continue to be in force.

Council members said at the meeting the mayor should consider stronger measures in future proclamation to prevent the spread of the virus, possibly including a city-wide curfew. The mayor said the city also needs to enforce capacity limits at large box stores.

City Manager Ifo Pili said he will “give direction to our police to turn up the heat” to increase enforcement of public health orders to prevent the spread of the virus, including wearing masks.

“I’m hearing the council loud and clear about wanting to enforce,” Pili said. Increased enforcement also means “putting our police force in a precarious situation,” Pili said, because of increased exposure of officers to the virus and the potential for confrontation.

“I will assure you that the LCPD is taking this seriously,” Interim Las Cruces Police Chief Miguel Dominguez said at the meeting. “We’ve taken a pro-active approach,” Dominguez said. And while the department can step up enforcement, it is “daunting to site everyone not wearing a mask,” he said, adding that, “As soon as we drive off, we hear complaints, ‘They took their mask right off.’ That’s the problem.”

“It’s tough when someone doesn’t want to take personal responsibility,” Councilor Johana Bencomo said. “If we’re just telling people, ‘please wear your mask,’ and not following up with enforcement, then people will just continue to do the same behavior.” The city’s level of response doesn’t seem equal to the seriousness of the situation, she said. “I am personally very concerned about the health of this community,” Bencomo said.

“We’re in real dire straits here,” Councilor Gabe Vasquez said. Enforcement should be stepped up because COVID-19 is “out of control everywhere,” he said. “We really do have to make this consequential for people not to wear masks.”

Miyagishima said he will consider increasing the current $50 fine for not wearing a mask in a future emergency proclamation. “I do not want to do a curfew here,” the mayor said. “Please don’t force that. I don’t think anybody wants that. It’s all about wearing a mask.”

“I feel like we need to strongly step up enforcement,” Mayor Pro-Tem Kasandra Gandara said.

“We should have a curfew,” Councilor Yvonne Flores said, advising that people wear masks, be conscientious about washing their hands regularly and practice social distancing.

“It’s large group gatherings, it’s not just one person,” Councilor Tessa Abeyta Stuve said. Asymptomatic people are still potential carriers of the virus, she said, and can infect others. “I just don’t understand why people aren’t taking that as seriously as they can. I think we’re at the point where we really have to put some teeth behind this enforcement,” Abeyta-Stuve said.

The council got an update at the meeting on the pandemic in the state and county from New Mexico Department of Health (NMDOH) officials.

Salina Torres of the NMDOH confirmed that the number of COVID-19 positive test results are continuing to increase statewide and said the rate of spread “continues to go up in all regions of the state.” She said New Mexico is ranked seventh among all states in the number of tests per capita it is conducting daily. Torres said public gatherings continue to be the single greatest cause of the increase in cases. She said the percentage of those who test positive for COVID-19 but are asymptomatic is going down. More than 80 percent of people who test positive are reporting symptoms of the virus, Torres said.