Serving the High Plains

State's courts lift mask, distancing requirements

In another sign the coronavirus pandemic likely was winding down, masks and physical distancing were no longer be required as of March 31 for any person inside a New Mexico courtroom or jury assembly area, the state’s Supreme Court announced last week.

Also, jurors no longer need to answer health screening questions to enter a courthouse. Courts will continue to make masks available to any juror who chooses to wear one, but they are not required.

The state’s judiciary lifted its remaining health related COVID-19 protocols in recognition of changes in the pandemic and the March 31 expiration of New Mexico’s declaration of a public health emergency.

“As we move forward and resume normal operations, courts can fully use all available space in courtrooms and jury assembly areas to conduct more trials and hearings,” Supreme Court Chief Justice C. Shannon Bacon said in a statement.

Courts will continue to conduct many proceedings remotely, Bacon said, with audio and video technology upgraded during the pandemic to lessen the need for people to visit a courthouse for judicial services.

“Courts learned to use digital tools to operate more efficiently and improve access to justice. That remains one of the helpful lessons for courts brought on by the pandemic,” said Justice David K. Thomson, who leads the Supreme Court’s Emergency Response Team for pandemic-related matters.

“Our courts adapted, innovated and remained open to serve the public despite many hardships during the past three years of the pandemic,” Bacon said. “This was possible because of many dedicated New Mexicans, particularly jurors, judicial employees, judges, hearing officers, attorneys, law enforcement and others who adhered to the COVID-safe policies of courts to preserve the availability of justice services.”

For the past year, physical distancing of 3 feet has been enforced inside courthouses, and masks were required for anyone inside a courtroom or jury assembly area.

Court employees, judges and hearing officers wore masks while interacting with the public in all areas of a courthouse, but that masking requirement ended after March 31.

Starting in May 2020, any person entering a court building was required to wear a protective face covering, and courts enforced 6-foot physical distancing to help limit the spread of COVID-19. The Supreme Court changed those masking and distancing requirements in March 2022.

In a news release Friday, the state’s Department of Health noted the expiration of the COVID-19 public health order.

“Three years ago, when COVID-19 first hit, we were all caught off guard,” DOH Secretary Patrick Allen said. “Today, we have a variety of tools to protect ourselves. Get vaccinated and stay up to date with boosters, stay home when you’re sick, and high-quality masks are readily available, particularly if you have a weakened immune system and want to add a layer of protection. These tools continue to work.”

The agency stated that COVID-19 vaccines and treatments would remain free to all residents regardless of insurance coverage as long as federally purchased supplies last.

At-home COVID-19 tests can continue to be ordered through Project Act via through June or while supplies last.

The U.S. government also plans to end its COVID-19 public health emergency on May 11.