The following article appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on September 25, 2020. It also appeared in several other New Mexico based outlets.
According to the latest unemployment figures (for August), New Mexico’s unemployment rate is 11.3 percent. Only 5 states, all of them locked-down “blue” states, have worse rates. And, there is a distinct pattern in which only such states have unemployment rates in the double digits.
Interestingly, the performance of those states when it comes to deaths from COVID-19 (the cause of the lockdowns) is statistically all over the place. Notably, New Mexico is right in the middle nationwide when it comes to saving its citizens from the worst impacts of the virus. Some of the worst-economic performing states (New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts) have also been pummeled by the virus that has affected all of us. Hawaii and California, on the other hand, have been locked down and face major unemployment issues, but have performed relatively well insofar as the virus is concerned.
The case for locking down state economies and demanding entire states like New Mexico remain shut and healthy people quarantine themselves will be studied for years to come. The relationship between aggressive lockdowns and success in reducing the virus are questionable at best. Similar studies will also undoubtedly be needed with regard to the social and academic impacts of keeping children at home and attempting to have them learn in an exclusively virtual environment while also being locked out of most normal youth activities.
What we do know is that New Mexico’s economy is suffering. Large parts of our economy (including most tourism venues and all entertainment centers) have been shut down by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham since March. This is starting to have a big impact on our economy.
The most notable illustration of that impact are high unemployment rates. In February, before the COVID-19 outbreak began, Utah’s unemployment rate was an amazingly low 2.5 percent. New Mexico’s was a respectable 4.8 percent. Utah’s rate has since jumped to 4.1 percent, but that remains far better than New Mexico’s elevated rate. And, while it is easy to get caught up in rates and numbers, it cannot be forgotten that these are real jobs and livelihoods that are being impacted. Hundreds of New Mexico businesses have closed due to the governor’s lockdown.
Worse, during the Q&A period at the end her news conference on Sept. 17, Lujan Grisham was asked about reopening bars, entertainment venues, and theaters.
Her response was that many such venues will not reopen until there is a vaccine. Unfortunately, no one knows when a vaccine will be available, but current estimates are that one will be coming by the second or third quarter of 2021. That means that numerous New Mexico businesses, many of which have been shut down since March, may not open until April or even as late as October 2021.
Most New Mexicans, especially small businesses, cannot hang on that long. And, traditional New Mexico events, from Bataan Death March commemorations to the Gathering of Nations and even the 2021 State Fair and Balloon Fiesta simply cannot be canceled for a second consecutive year.
We must deal with both the virus AND the economic impacts it is having on our state. We shouldn’t expect Washington to go even further into debt to bail us out. And the governor simply can’t keep large portions of New Mexico’s economy (including tourism) locked down until a vaccine is widely available.
A federal judge threw out Pennsylvania’s lockdown, saying, in part, “The Constitution cannot accept the concept of a ‘new normal’ where the basic liberties of the people can be subordinated to open-ended emergency mitigation measures. Rather, the Constitution sets certain lines that may not be crossed, even in an emergency.”
When they head to the polls to vote this November, New Mexicans must balance the economy and constitutional liberties along with well-intended attempts to overcome the virus.
Paul Gessing is president of New Mexico’s Rio Grande Foundation. The Rio Grande Foundation is an independent, nonpartisan, tax-exempt research and educational organization dedicated to promoting prosperity for New Mexico based on principles of limited government, economic freedom and individual responsibility.