Who enforces the mask mandate in New Mexico?

by Debora Nicoll | September 28, 2021
8 min read
Sierra County posts signs on the doors of county buildings advising that masks are required upon entry, but county officials say they do not have the authority to enforce the governor's order requiring masks to be worn in all indoor public settings, nor do they consistently comply with the mandate themselves. Source: Sierra County Sun

The Sun has learned that a formal complaint leveled against the Sierra County Commissioners for failing to comply with the state’s mask mandate at an indoor public meeting has been submitted to the state and to county government by Winston resident Arla Ertz.

The Sun’s investigation into how Ertz’s complaints were handled reveals a laxity of enforcement of this public health emergency order, issued by the New Mexico Department of Health at the direction of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Even though all state agencies and departments have been authorized by the DOH to “take all appropriate steps to ensure compliance,” the Sun searched in vain for a state official who could even confirm receipt of Ertz’s complaints, let alone substantiate what actions had been taken in response.


Countless scientific studies confirm the importance of face masks in protecting against the spread of COVID-19, especially in unvaccinated populations. (See a nature.com roundup, “What the science says about lifting mask mandates,” here.) Sierra County’s vaccination rate falls far below that of the state as a whole. According to the CDC, as of Sept. 28, 52.2 percent of all eligible Sierra Countians were fully vaccinated. In the state as a whole, the comparable figure was 73.8 percent. For the seven days preceding Sept. 28, Sierra was the only county in New Mexico whose rate of community transmission was ranked by the CDC as “high.”

When the more contagious Delta variant of COVID-19 began to surge throughout New Mexico in July, Governor Lujan Grisham once again asked residents to mask up. First taking effect for a month on Aug. 20, and extended for another month on Sept. 15, the order requires that all individuals ages two and older “shall wear a mask or multilayer cloth face covering in all indoor public settings except when eating and drinking.”

The DOH, New Mexico Department of Public Safety and the New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management are specifically named in the original order as having enforcement authority. The extension order provides that “[a]ny and all officials authorized by the Department of Health may force this order by issuing a citation of violation, which may result in civil and administrative penalties of $5,000 for each violation.”  

The New Mexico.gov website page on which incidents of noncompliance with any COVID-related public health orders can be reported advises that complainants may also “contact your local police or sheriff’s departments on their non-emergency phone lines.”


On Wednesday, Aug. 25, five days after enactment of the mask mandate, Arla Ertz and her partner arrived at the Winston Community Center to attend a county-sponsored meeting to solicit public input on priority capital improvement projects. Sierra County Commissioners Jim Paxon and Hank Hopkins, Sierra County Manager Charlene Webb and two county employees—the road director and the human resources/administrative services director—were in the meeting room, Webb later confirmed. Ertz and her partner were astounded to discover they were the “only people wearing masks!” she stated in a letter of complaint emailed to Webb on Sept. 1, a copy of which Ertz provided the Sun. “Not a single other attendee, nor you or any of the Commissioners were wearing masks at any time during the meeting. This is outrageous, especially given that the gathering was an official County meeting.”

Ertz’s letter concluded: “I implore you to follow the COVID safety mandates set forth by the State of New Mexico from here on out.”

A day earlier, on Aug. 31, Ertz had used the state’s online COVID-related complaint form to report the “flagrant disregard and intentional flouting” of the mask mandate by Sierra County officials at the WCC meeting. She emailed the identical complaint to covid.enforcement@state.nm.us—an address to be used as an alternative submission method on the complaint form page. Ertz provided the Sun with a copy of the emailed complaint. There is “no excuse for holding an official meeting without masking indoors,” it asserted. “Please address this issue ASAP.”

As Ertz soon discovered, the system set up by the state for responding to complaints about mask violations was not timely. Nor has it proved to be reliable, transparent or effective. A month after its filing, Ertz’s complaint to the state has either fallen through the cracks or been ignored. Sierra County government officials, who do not consistently comply with the mask mandate themselves, have disavowed responsibility for ensuring compliance. So did local and county law enforcement.


Ertz received a written response from County Manager Webb within a week’s time on Sept. 8. Though prompt, Webb’s reply was “very unsatisfactory,” Ertz told the Sun. It failed to “address her request [that the commissioners] . . . wear masks [at indoor public meetings] as mandated.” Webb advised Ertz that the county did not have the authority to enforce the mandate and concluded by telling Ertz that she and her partner were “welcomed” to wear face masks.

“My partner and I weren’t merely ‘welcomed’ to wear masks at the indoor meeting, we’re required by law to do so!” Ertz said. Ertz also reiterated that she had not requested the county to enforce the mandate, merely to abide by it.

The Sun asked Sierra County Commissioners Paxon, Hopkins and Travis Day via email to comment on whether Ertz’s complaint was justified and, if so, to explain their reasons for not wearing masks. Only Commissioner Day, who noted that he had not been present at the WCC meeting, responded.

“We are not the mask police,” Day said in a Sept. 21 phone interview. The commissioners treat everyone the same, whether they are masked or not, he elaborated. The county was nonetheless doing everything required to ensure the public’s safety, including sanitizing county buildings and posting reminders to wear a mask at their entrances.

The Sun asked Day whether, in light of his leadership role in the county, he had a responsibility to set a personal example by wearing a mask at the commission’s regular monthly meetings, which the public can attend both in person and virtually. Day replied that he finds masks “disruptive,” as he likes to be able to drink water during meetings. Even so, he insisted that he and his fellow commissioners did their best to comply with the mandate. “You can see that we had them part of the August meeting,” he said. “For other meetings we had them you, just couldn’t see them if you were streaming the event.”


On Sept. 9, the Sun contacted local and state law enforcement to determine their policies on the mask mandate. Sierra County Undersheriff David Elston told the Sun that the sheriff’s office is not enforcing the mask mandate. When asked what the sheriff’s office would do if someone were to call in with a complaint, Elston said they would direct the complainant to either the New Mexico State Police or the DOH.

Truth or Consequences Chief of Police Victor Rodriguez affirmed that the mask mandate is to be enforced by the DOH and the state police. “We want to encourage compliance,” Rodriguez said, but local law enforcement cannot enforce the mandate. He was happy to report that the T or C police have yet to receive any complaints about mask violations. If the department were to receive a complaint, officers would respond to the scene to be sure that disagreements did not escalate. If necessary, the police could remove the unmasked person from the premises for trespassing, Rodriguez stated.

Since both local law enforcement agencies stated that they would refer anyone with information on mandate violations to the NMSP and DOH, the Sun called the State Police’s listed phone number (1-575-382-2500) yesterday. A recorded message offers a menu of possible reasons for the call. Callers who select “non-emergency COVID-19 questions” are advised to either call the state’s coronavirus information hotline at 1-833-551-0518 or, to report noncompliance, email nmst.covid19@state.nm.us.

The Sun waited until a dispatcher came on the line. The dispatcher said the State Police currently have no orders from the governor to enforce the mask mandate.

And calling the coronavirus information hotline? It advises those who wish to report violations of the public health order to email covid.enforcement@state.nm.us or to contact their local police or sheriff.


The Sun attempted to reach Matt Bieber, DOH’s director of communications, by phone. Unable to leave a message because Bieber’s voice mail box was full, the Sun sent the communications director an email inquiring about what was being done to address Ertz’s complaints.

The email was answered by communication specialist Jim Walton. Walton told the Sun that the DOH was unaware of any complaint against the Sierra County Commission. He said that the DOH was aware of only two infractions of the overall public health order that had been reported since July 2021, when the governor (temporarily, as it turned out) lifted all COVID-19 restrictions. One of the violators received at $5,000 fine.

The Sun forwarded Ertz’s complaint directly to Bieber and Walton to find out why the DOH had no record of its filing. Neither has responded.

Trying to get to the bottom—or top—of the matter, the Sun contacted the office of DOH’s cabinet secretary yesterday and reached business administrator Elias Paredes. Paredes said that the COVID enforcement team in the governor’s office is supposed to partner with local law enforcement to ensure compliance. He offered to forward to the governor’s office the Sun’s inquiry about how noncompliance complaints are handled.

The Sun also tried to contact the governor’s office, placing a call in the hope of speaking with a representative of the COVID enforcement team. Instead, the call was transferred to . . . the coronavirus information hotline.


Debora Nicoll covers the Sierra County Commission for the Sun.

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

2 thoughts on “Who enforces the mask mandate in New Mexico?”

  1. On Aug. 27, after the state’s mandate for masks had been reinstated, I went to the T or C Walmart pharmacy to obtain medicine for a friend. I found myself in line for about 15 minutes with a lady in front of me who wore no mask and another right behind me with no mask. Standing in a single line in a cramped aisle, there was no social distancing, either. The pharmacy staff were all well protected with masks and a wall of plexiglass. Later that day and the next, I submitted a complaint to the state’s online COVID-19 system, as well as to Walmart’s corporate headquarters.

    I never heard a word from either the state or Walmart. The following week, when I again visited Walmart, I noticed people without masks, despite the presence of a lady who was handing them out at the front door. I asked her why Walmart did not do anything to comply with the state’s masking mandate. She said there was “no law’ requiring it. And, obviously, our local Walmart has no interest in making it a store policy. They apparently just want money, not trouble.

    I saw the state’s online suggestion to contact local law enforcement or the sheriff’s office for enforcement. Such a suggestion is absolutely ridiculous.

    I have not seen a member of local law enforcement or the sheriff’s department wearing a mask in Sierra County since COVID-19 began. Just this week, the other “newspaper” showed a local policeman standing next to a 13-year-old boy, both with no masks (I am sure they were in the middle of lunch). There have been several photos in the last month or two in the Sentinel of Sheriff Glenn Hamilton—guess what, no mask in sight. The Sentinel continually publishes pictures of public events with no people wearing masks, while at the same time getting paid by the state to publish expensive but ineffective full-page advertisements asking people to get tested or vaccinated.

    The state is not consistently taking COVID-19 seriously. How about some real economic penalties for noncompliance with public health orders? How about imposing a $5,000 penalty on local law enforcement for failure to “protect and serve”? How about having the State Police attend some local public meetings to ensure our leaders are complying?

    Yesterday, I shopped at Walmart in Las Cruces and everyone I saw was wearing a mask. Socorro’s Walmart also has good compliance. How about fining our local Walmart $5,000 per day for violations?

    Overall, New Mexico has a vaccination rate of almost 75 percent. With only a 50+ percent vaccination rate in Sierra County, why would the majority of tourists want to come to place where there is a higher probability of getting sick (and possibly dying)?

    Sierra County’s population fell during the last 10 years by something near 10 percent. Showing a lack of concern for the health of residents is not a good way to keep people in the county.

    Local leaders say they embrace the concept of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. But apparently with COVID-19, science is no longer trusted and is off the table. Guess half of the county’s residents would settle for just TEM. Yet, when unvaccinated people get the coronavirus and get really sick, then they will go to the science-based hospital to be treated by science-educated doctors and nurses.

    In reality, I think we all know this is just politics at its worst. The answer to the title of the story is: nobody.

  2. Thank you, Deb Nicoll, for an insightful article. I do mask when indoors and even outdoors at times. There should be no question that while indoors, our county commissioners, city commissioners . . . be masked while at indoor meetings. They continue to flout their responsibilities on this matter. They are our representatives and should therefore adhere to the state’s mandate.

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