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New Mexico governor lifts state’s indoor mask mandate

February 17, 2022 GMT
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the end to her state's indoor mask mandate while Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, right, removes his mask on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Lujan Grisham has been known for her adamant mask wearing, including in outdoor settings. She says a drop in the risk of COVID-19 allows her to drop the executive order mandating indoor mask wearing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the end to her state's indoor mask mandate while Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, right, removes his mask on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Lujan Grisham has been known for her adamant mask wearing, including in outdoor settings. She says a drop in the risk of COVID-19 allows her to drop the executive order mandating indoor mask wearing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the end to her state's indoor mask mandate while Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, right, removes his mask on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Lujan Grisham has been known for her adamant mask wearing, including in outdoor settings. She says a drop in the risk of COVID-19 allows her to drop the executive order mandating indoor mask wearing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
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Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the end to her state's indoor mask mandate while Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, right, removes his mask on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Lujan Grisham has been known for her adamant mask wearing, including in outdoor settings. She says a drop in the risk of COVID-19 allows her to drop the executive order mandating indoor mask wearing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)
1 of 3
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, center, announces the end to her state's indoor mask mandate while Lt. Gov. Howie Morales, right, removes his mask on Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Santa Fe, N.M. Lujan Grisham has been known for her adamant mask wearing, including in outdoor settings. She says a drop in the risk of COVID-19 allows her to drop the executive order mandating indoor mask wearing. (AP Photo/Cedar Attanasio)

Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham lifted the state’s mask mandate for indoor public spaces on Thursday.

She made the surprise announcement at a news conference that followed the end of the 30-day legislative session. The state’s top health official had said just last week that masks were effective and that New Mexico was still in “hot water.”

Until now, New Mexico and Hawaii had been the only states that had yet to set a date for lifting their mandates. Washington’s governor on Thursday also announced that state’s mandate would be lifted March 21 for most places, including schools.

As in other states, coronavirus infections in New Mexico have been declining.

Lujan Grisham cited reduced COVID-19 risks and removed her mask at an indoor news conference alongside Democratic legislators and top officials from her administration.

“It’s not a political decision,” Lujan Grisham said. “It’s the right time for us. We are conquering COVID and we’ll keep doing that.”

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She emphasized that masks are still an effective tool for limiting the spread of COVID and protecting vulnerable people.

“I may never visit my mother without a mask on,” Lujan Grisham said.

Most of the assembled Democratic politicians and state officials also took off their masks following the announcement, including Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase.

Scrase said later that masks would still be required at hospitals and congregate care settings such as nursing homes.

In August, the governor reinstated New Mexico’s mask mandate. At the time, she cited stagnant vaccination rates and an increase in infections. She also required more people to get vaccinated, including workers at hospitals, nursing homes and other places that the state deemed as high-risk.

It wasn’t immediately clear if Lujan Grisham planned any other changes to the state’s current public health order, which will expire in early March.

The governor, who is up for reelection in November, had been facing increasing pressure to reconsider the mask mandate for public spaces after several more states moved to lift their requirements earlier this month.

State Sen. David Gallegos, a Republican from southeastern New Mexico, was among those leading the charge against the mandate. In early February, he sent a letter to education officials saying New Mexico was one of the last holdouts to accept that there was little data to support the continued use of masks in schools.

Senate Minority Leader Greg Baca, a Belen Republican, said Thursday that he was glad the governor finally heeded the call.

“Though we celebrate the announcement, the timing is clearly motivated by politics,” he said. “New Mexicans, however, will not forget the last three years simply because this is an election year.”

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The Republican Party of New Mexio also labeled the governor’s move as political, saying she should have removed the mask mandate months ago and suggested that Thursday’s move was used to deflect from her legislative losses.

Whitney Holland, president of the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico, said Thursday that individual school districts will have the choice whether to maintain masking. She said the union has always maintained the best decision making happens at the local level.

“We see today’s announcement as a sign of progress in our shared fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, and we will continue our efforts to empower our members to make the decisions which are best for themselves, their students, and our communities,” Holland said.

The Las Cruces Public School District was among the first to declare it was ending its mask requirement and resuming concession sales.

“We will move cautiously forward under this shift,” Superintendent Ralph Ramos said in a statement. “Students, families and staff have sacrificed a lot to get the number of positive cases down. Effective immediately, masks will be optional, and we will respect the decision of students, families and staff to choose for themselves whether or not they want to wear a mask — indoors or out.”

Other districts followed suit, including in Albuquerque and neighboring Rio Rancho.

All told, more than half of New Mexico’s K-12 students will have the option of not wearing masks to school on Friday.

No decision was made in Santa Fe Public Schools, where students won’t be in class until Tuesday. Board members and administrators are expected to discuss the issue Thursday night and Friday, district spokesman Cody Dynarski said.

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Associated Press writers Morgan Lee and Cedar Attanasio contributed to this report.