Proof of COVID-19 vaccination required to visit New Mexico state Capitol — unless you're a lawmaker

Algernon D'Ammassa
Las Cruces Sun-News

When New Mexico lawmakers return to the state Capitol in Santa Fe for a special session next month, visitors to the Roundhouse will have to show proof of vaccination against COVID-19 and wear a mask, vaccinated or not.

Lawmakers, however, cannot be barred from the proceedings if they do not comply.

The Legislative Council Service announced the policy on Tuesday, which applies to the Capitol building housing the Legislature as well as the office of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, whose administration does not set building policy. 

As the governor's spokeswoman, Nora Meyers Sackett, put it: "The governor's office is a tenant in the Roundhouse and does not oversee the building or the Legislature's logistics or procedures."

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Leaves turn red outside the New Mexico State Capitol building, known as the Roundhouse, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020, in Santa Fe, N.M.

“Given the high number of COVID-19 cases across the state and the strain this continues to put on state resources, it is incumbent on us to protect everyone in the Capitol complex while conducting the state’s business,” LCS Director Raúl Burciaga stated in a news release.

The Roundhouse, which typically bustles with activity and tours while legislative sessions are in progress, will be open during the December redistricting session as well as the regular session set to open on Jan. 18. 

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However, the familiar clamor of exhibition booths, tours and special events in the Capitol rotunda will be absent. Neither chamber will use pages during the sessions, either.

Visitors will be required to show documentation of "full vaccination," currently defined as a complete course of vaccine: Either the single-dose Johnson and Johnson vaccine, or the two-dose vaccines produced by Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech. Earlier in November, acting state Health Secretary Dr. David Scrase said redefining full vaccination to include additional doses was under discussion. 

New Mexico Human Services Secretary Dr. David Scrase, who is also acting state Health Secretary, demonstrates proper mask-wearing during a virtual news conference from the state Capitol building in Santa Fe on Wednesday, July 1, 2020.

The LCS policy also prohibits visitors from bringing firearms into the building. The no-weapons policy was adopted earlier in November and takes effect Dec. 6, with visitors subject to bag searches or magnetometer screening at entry.

'Politicians need to be put on notice'

The 2021 legislative session opened in an empty Capitol behind chain-link fencing, closed to most of the public to reduce community spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes COVID-19 disease. The fencing was part of security measures taken following the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington and has since been removed.

That session also saw a rapid move to virtual committee hearings, allowing the public to participate online and by telephone, which House Speaker Brian Egolf, a Democrat from Santa Fe, argued allowed even more participation by residents from all over the state. 

"I've never seen that many members of the public in the building on any given day to attend committee meetings — even half that number," he said at the 2021 session's midway point last February. 

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New Mexico Republican state legislators including House Minority Leader Jim Townsend of Artesia, left foreground, and Senate Minority Leader Gregory Baca of Belen, right, hold a news conference at the Capitol on Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Santa Fe.

The Capitol building reopened to visitors in April of this year, with the state's current indoor mask mandate in public spaces in force. 

Although the LCS' new policy permits the general public to return to the Capitol, House Republican leader Jim Townsend of Artesia accused Democrats, who hold majorities in both chambers, of partisan motives. 

"Last year they put up a fence blockade and called the National Guard, this year they’ve decided to ask for your medical records and take away your Second Amendment rights," Townsend complained in a written statement. "Elections have consequences and these politicians need to be put on notice that people’s voice matters, and not just public input in favor of the Democrats.”

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State Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces and a member of the Legislative Health and Human Services Committee, said the rules would in fact allow for more access, combining virtual access with public access for the vaccinated. 

"We could easily go back to what we did last session and just do it all by Zoom," she said, "but because we have the vaccine now, more people are vaccinated and should be vaccinated, we know what protections we should be taking. We feel that this is something we can manage, hopefully."

"We see this as going above and beyond to make sure that we can include public participation and having access to us as legislators as much as possible," she continued. 

New Mexico Rep. Joanne Ferrary, D-Las Cruces, addressed the New Mexico State Game Commission during their meeting at the New Mexico Farm and Ranch Heritage Museum in Las Cruces on Friday, Jan. 17, 2020.

Lawmakers who do not comply with the mandates, however, cannot be prevented from taking part in the session, Burciaga confirmed. 

"State legislators are constitutional officers and have a duty to represent their constituents and district," he emailed the Las Cruces Sun-News. "As such they cannot be prohibited from participating in the legislative proceedings."

Citizen access during a pandemic

"It's unfortunate that some people don't comply with this because I think that's keeping our state from accomplishing full vaccination and resistance to this terrible virus," Ferrary said, expressing concern about overwhelming patient loads at the state's hospitals and the potential economic damage of a worsening outbreak. 

New Mexico is experiencing another increase in COVID-19 cases statewide, attributed to the highly infectious delta variant simultaneous with waning immunity among early recipients of vaccines against the disease. The statewide indoor public masking mandate, one of a handful in the U.S. aiming to slow community spread, is seldom enforced and set to expire, unless extended, in mid-December. 

New Mexico COVID-19 cases are shown as increasing since October in the state health department's Nov. 22, 2021 epidemiological report. The wave in the middle represents the deal surge from the fall of 2020.

The great majority of known cases recover, including 85 percent of New Mexico's 308,091 cumulative known cases on Wednesday, while fatalities passed 5,300 this week, increasing in pace in recent weeks. 

New Mexico residents who have completed a primary course of vaccine against the disease comprise 74 percent of adults and 55 percent of minors between ages of 12 and 17. Additionally, 21 percent of New Mexico adults have received a booster dose, and children from age five and up began receiving vaccinations early in November. 

While New Mexico lawmakers are constitutional officers, they are also unpaid members of a part-time citizen Legislature. 

State Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, said she has regularly contracted flu during the 30- to 60-day sessions at the Roundhouse, before the pandemic. The lawmaker recently posted on Twitter that she had received her booster dose of COVID-19 vaccine and a flu shot.

In an interview, she expressed concern about health risks — not only to herself but to her colleagues, some of whom are elderly or have medical conditions that can exacerbate the effects of the disease. 

New Mexico Rep. Angelica Rubio, D-Las Cruces, speaks at a news conference hosted by NM CAFé in Las Cruces on Friday, April 30, 2021.

"I'm very concerned that there are legislators who don't take it seriously, who don't wear their masks appropriately, sometimes don't even show up to committee or on the floor in response to the fact that they don't want to wear a mask," she said. 

While she will be in Santa Fe for the upcoming special session, Rubio said she would minimize her time inside the building and work from a location nearby. 

She also pushed back on complaints that virtual proceedings excluded the public and said conducting committee hearings via streaming video actually opened the process to more of the public, especially for working parents and residents who do not live near Santa Fe. 

"We had hundreds of people show up on Zoom to talk about different issues," she recalled. "There were moments I had to shut the camera off because I was so overwhelmed with emotion because I was hearing people, Spanish-speaking members from around the state, calling and making their voices heard on certain issues."

Independent of the public health emergency, Rubio argued that virtual points of access for participation by elected members and the public should be developed further. 

"It's still an old-school type of thinking that we have to be present," she said, "not knowing that New Mexico could actually set a standard, not only for how we handle a pandemic but also how we make this whole process more inclusive." 

Algernon D'Ammassa can be reached at 575-541-5451, adammassa@lcsun-news.com or @AlgernonWrites on Twitter.