Los Lunas Fire Department firefighters Tommy Madrid, assistant fire chief, left, and Cody Cordova, right, administer a COVID-19 test to a patient on Monday, Nov. 16, at a drive-up testing site at Daniel D. Fernandez Memorial Park.
Matthew Narvaiz | News-Bulletin photo

It’s the second verse and it’s much the same as the first.

After eight months of varying degrees of restrictions and regulations, the state has gone back into a “lockdown” scenario similar to the one in March to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Last week, in response to rapidly rising COVID-19 cases, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued a new public health order closing indoor and outdoor dining, and nonessential businesses, such as hair salons and gyms until Monday Nov. 30.

Essential businesses, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, can operate at either 25 percent of their maximum capacity or 75 customers, whichever is less.

As of Tuesday, Nov. 17, there have been 1,718 COVID-19 cases reported in Valencia County, compared to the 740 reported on Oct. 17.

The governor said activities, such as dining out and heading to close-contact businesses such as gyms and salons, has “exasperated community spread.”

Valencia County Fire Chief Brian Culp attributed much of the rise in cases to “COVID fatigue.”

“People haven’t been able to go on vacation, visit family members, visit friends, go do things they normally do on a day-to-day basis,” Culp said. “And they haven’t been able to do that since March. The frustration level is extremely high. I know from the fire department, we’ve really had to adapt to COVID running our day-to-day operations versus us being able to do things as usual.

“That fatigue has been hard on everyone and people get lax in it,” he said. “Then they get exposed and depending on how sick they get, it could become a very serious issue.”

The Belen Board of Education unanimously voted Tuesday to move students in all grade levels to full remote learning until mid January.

Students will finish classes in the hybrid model this week, ending Friday, then they will have the following week off for Thanksgiving.

Starting Monday, Nov. 30, through Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, Belen Consolidated Schools students will be learning remotely.

Acting superintendent Lawrence Sanchez recommended the board push the remote learning period into January to allow for families to properly quarantine after Christmas break if they decide to travel out of the state.

“One of our biggest concerns is when people travel, are they doing what they are supposed to do to make sure they quarantine?” Sanchez said. “We are supposed be back on Jan. 5. We just want to make sure.”

Sanchez said the board would meet in early January to reevaluate the decision about what learning model the district would follow based on the data.

Board members agreed asking students and families to go completely remote was a hard decision, but for one board member it was not a surprise.

“We were coming to this, unfortunately, because I think adults on a large scale not failed, but we need to all be on the same sheet of music,” said board member Aubrey Tucker. “We cannot go forward after this and have agendas. We have to remain with what we are doing, stay diligent, look at the science and make educated and pragmatic decisions based on the data.

“People are in crisis; the nation is in crisis. This is not an easy decision. We know there is a lot of hurt out there. We are trying to do the very best we can with what we have.”

As of Tuesday, Nov. 17, 16 BCS employees and 13 students have tested positive for COVID-19.

K-12 public schools, for now, will remain unaffected by the new health order, though schools currently in a remote-learning model can’t move over to a hybrid model during the health order, according to a press release from the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Los Lunas Schools and School of Dreams Academy are currently in a remote-learning model.

Lujan Grisham is also limiting lodging capacity to 25 percent for those businesses that have completed New Mexico Safe Certified training, down from 60 percent in the previous health order.

Houses of worship are now limited to a capacity of 25 percent or 75 people — whichever is less — a decrease from 40 percent capacity.

After the two-week public health order expires, the state will implement a three-tier, county-by-county system — using county COVID-19 data — to establish reopening benchmarks for each county.

The governor said a special session will be held “as quick as we can” to help with economic impact in the state. She didn’t give an exact date as to when, but the next scheduled regular session is more than two months away in January.

Lujan Grisham said if a new, stricter public health order wasn’t enforced, that would “crush our current health care system and infrastructure.”

There has also been a significant increase in the number of deaths due to coronavirus statewide. Over the last two weeks, there have been 182 deaths attributed to complications from COVID-19 compared to 75 in the two weeks before that.

In Valencia County, there have been 17 deaths as of Tuesday, Nov. 17, including three at Belen Meadows Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center.

The New Mexico Environment Department’s COVID-19 Rapid Response portal shows positive cases of COVID-19 among Belen Meadows’s employees going back to Oct. 11. Initially, the cases were sporadic, with only three reported between Oct. 11 and Oct. 30. There were 11 reported between Nov. 2 and 7, followed by 27 more between Nov. 9 and 14, for a total of 41 employees.

Culp verified there are also 70 residents at the facility who have recently tested positive for COVID-19.

The fire chief said if an employee or resident of a health care facility tests positive for COVID-19, the company is required to inform the families of all the residents and explain what precautionary measures are being taken.

“Once they have a positive, they are required to do 100 percent testing of all residents, then all the residents and employees are tested weekly for 28 days to see if it’s spreading or if they shut it down properly,” he said.

While retail businesses and restaurants could be shut down for two weeks if they had two or more rapid responses by the New Mexico Environment Department in 14 days for employees testing positive for COVID-19, health care operations such as Belen Meadows are exempt from closure.

NMED’s website doesn’t show any businesses in Valencia County that have been required to close, but there are 10 on the watchlist, including Albertsons Market, Los Lunas, two employees; B&D Industries, Los Lunas, two; BNSF Railway, Belen, five cases; Excel Construction, Belen, three; Hallcon Corporation, Belen, two cases; Interconne Concrete Contractors, Los Lunas, two employees; Lone Mountain Contracting, Bosque Farms, two; Smith’s Food & Drug, Los Lunas, two; Wall Colmonoy, Los Lunas, three; and Walmart Distribution Center, Los Lunas, seven employees

The portal lists more than 220 rapid responses in the county since June 8 when NMED began tracking responses. There have been more than 9,200 rapid responses statewide.

Shortly after COVID-19 came to Valencia County, the Belen Public Health Office has been the designated test site. The county fire department, as well as Belen fire and police personnel and Los Lunas fire department employees have been part of the testing efforts, assisting the health office by getting trained on how to swab and providing employees for test events.

“It’s gotten very, very busy with the additional cases within the county and us also helping public health with testing in Los Lunas and Belen,” Culp said. “(Department of Health) wants us to do more testing. We’re already testing four days a week and they’d like us to do 250 or more tests a day.”


The chief said the virus is at the community spread point.

“It’s all over the place now. We used to be able to lock it down to a certain place. For instance, among the county employees who have tested positive, we found the exposure wasn’t with the other county employees. It was outside of work,” he said. “That’s where the whole thing of not even having families intermix comes in — you don’t know who’s positive and who’s negative.

“This is hard. I know that. My grandmother is in an assisted living facility in Albuquerque. Guess who I haven’t seen since March? I know this is hard on families, but we can’t let our guard down.”

Los Lunas Fire Chief John Gabaldon said the village administration is working hard to educate staff on the importance of COVID-19 precautions.

“I know the issue came up at a council meeting that there may have been an issue with an employee traveling out of state,” Gabaldon said. “We have to train our staff and trust them to do the right thing. At any time, there might be a chance someone is not the most honest about what they’re doing on their time off.”

The chief said the village has worked diligently to implement and follow all the COVID-safe practices and screening methods to hopefully detect anyone who might have been exposed to the virus.

“Our ultimate goal is to have someone wake up and not come into work because they recognize they have a symptom,” he said.

Gabaldon said the village has shifted as many employees as possible to working from home or put them on a hybrid schedule to reduce the number of people in the offices.

“If we have an individual exposed or test positive, that is a lot less contact and disrupting of services to the community,” he said. “There are a lot of boots on the ground for essential services, so that is hard to navigate. We are just really communicating to keep your distance, keep your distance, keep your distance, and cover up.”

Saying the state and especially Valencia County are very inviting, friendly places, Gabaldon agreed people have let their guard down a bit.

“We need to step back and think about this virus — what it does and who it impacts. You can’t pick who it goes to. You pass it on to those who are closest to you,” he said. “We need to do our part and make sure we don’t pass it on to our family and friends; look at the big picture and take care of each other.”

Culp strongly recommends those who are able to get a flu shot do so. The Belen Public Health Office is holding a drive-thru vaccine clinic from 1:30-4 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, at its office, 617 Becker Ave. Call 864-7743, ext. 1101, to make an appointment or if you have questions.

Culp said the county fire fighters will be helping with any flu vaccine drive thru clinics to practice for a future COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’ve been involved in the swabbing and the upcoming flu shot clinics so when a vaccine is available, we’ll be ready and can process people for a COVID vaccine,” he said.

COVID-19 testing will continue as normal this week in Belen and Los Lunas. Regular testing is done in Belen at the Belen Public Health Office, 617 Becker Ave., from 8-9:45 a.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays, and in Los Lunas at the Daniel Fernandez Memorial Park, 1103 N.M. 314, from 8:30-10:15 a.m., Mondays and Thursdays.

Both locations are drive-thru only and require an appointment. Visit cvtestreg.nmhealth.org or call 864-7743, ext. 1101 to make an appointment at either site.

During the week of Thanksgiving, in Los Lunas, testing will be from 8:30-10:30 a.m., on Monday, Nov. 23. Use the code “Holiday” when registering.

There will be testing in Belen from 8-10:30 a.m., Tuesday and Wednesday, Nov. 24 and 25. Use the codes “Holiday1” or “Holiday2” to register.

There will be no testing in either Belen or Los Lunas on Thursday and Friday, Nov. 26 and 27. Regular testing times and days will resume on Monday, Nov. 30.

Government closures

The Belen Public Library, Books on Becker and the Belen Harvey House Museum will be closed.

The Belen Business Center is closed to the public.

The Belen Community Center and all city parks are closed. The city is asking food trucks not to gather for Food Truck Friday.

Utility payment clerks will relocate to the Belen Fire Station at South Fifth Street and Castillo Avenue.

All city staff who can telework will do so to the extent possible.

Los Lunas

The Daniel Fernandez Recreation Center and all tennis facilities will be closed until further notice.

Dance classes are postponed.

The parks, trails and open space will remain open but people are required to wear masks and practice social distancing.

The Los Lunas Public Library and Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts will be temporarily discontinuing curbside services to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Valencia County

The Valencia County Administration buildings are closed. As a result, departments are providing service to the public by appointment only. For more information, visit co.valencia.nm.us.

State offices

All Taxation and Revenue Department offices, including both tax and Motor Vehicle Division field offices, will be closed to the public until Nov. 30.

The New Mexico Supreme Court paused criminal and civil jury trials across New Mexico through the end of the year. New Mexico’s appellate, district, metropolitan and magistrate courts will remain open while operating with COVID-safe procedures, including requiring masks and health screening for everyone who enters a courthouse and strict enforcement of a minimum 6-foot physical distancing by court staff and members of the public.

(Clara Garcia and Matthew Narvaiz contributed to this report.)

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.