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‘Very troubling’: State says Doña Ana County Commissioners meeting violated public health order

social distancing dona ana county
KVIA
Dona Ana County Commissioners Ramon Gonzalez, Lynn Ellins and Isabella Solis broke federal social distancing guidelines on by taking a group photo.

LAS CRUCES, New Mexico - A spokeswoman for the New Mexico governor's office said the public's attendance in chambers at a meeting of the Doña Ana County Commissioners on Tuesday violated the state public health order.

Nora Meyers Sackett called the dozens of people attending the meeting in person "very troubling."

"Per the public health order, while public officials or public employees in the course of their employment are exempt from the mass gatherings rule, audiences for such meetings are not permitted," wrote Sackett in a text to ABC-7. "In this case, while the commissioners are allowed to gather in order to hold their meeting, the audience that was present was in violation of the mass gatherings rule of the public health order."

Sackett clarified that elected officials are allowed to gather in person, but the public must submit their comments and attend the meeting virtually.

The chairs for the public were all spaced only about four feet apart at Tuesday's meeting, and the Doña Ana County Commissioners at times also took group photos. Both actions broke social distancing guidelines from the federal government.

District 3 Commissioner Shannon Reynolds was the only elected official to stay home, phoning into the meeting.

"My wife and I are both over 65," Reynolds said in a text message. "She has had underlying medical conditions that make her even more at risk."

District 2 Commissioner Ramon Gonzalez was the only elected official to wear a face covering to the meeting. Sheriff Kim Stewart and Fire Chief Nick Hempel also wore masks, but the vast majority of county employees did not.

Commissioners Isabella Solis, Manuel Sanchez and Lynn Ellins had no face covering or masks as they addressed the public.

When asked why she took a group photo, Solis said: "It's a tradition we normally have in the chamber. I was not thinking about social distancing at that moment."

"It's a fair question," replied Sanchez. "I don't have a good answer. I think we - I'm actually surprised we allow the public (inside). I understand we have the distancing, but I would prefer to not have so many people in here."

"Perhaps it's not (social distancing), but I didn't join the group," said Ellins. "I felt being behind the podium was sufficient distance at the time."

Dozens of audience members did not wear face coverings, either.

"Per the public health order, government is exempt from the mass gatherings rule, while obviously still strongly encouraged to abide by social distancing," Sackett said.

She added: "Not doing so is obviously dangerous and unwise."

"If I can work from home, I will continue to do that until a better understanding of the risk and more testing is available," Reynolds concluded.

"The virus doesn't care whether you are in support or opposition of the stay-at-home order," said Nora Meyers Sackett, the spokeswoman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. "The virus will infect you no matter what you believe or where you are. The best thing you can do to protect yourself is to not gather with people and stay home."

After ABC-7 brought the spacing of chairs to the attention of manager Fernando Macias, a building maintenance crew increased the spacing between chairs, taped off the six foot marker and removed several chairs from the audience.

Article Topic Follows: New Mexico

Kate Bieri

Kate Bieri is ABC-7’s New Mexico Mobile Newsroom reporter and co-anchors ABC-7’s weekend evening newscasts.

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