FILE - In this Nov. 25, 2020, file photo provided by the New Mexico Office of the Governor, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signs a $330 million economic relief package aimed at helping small businesses and out-of-work New Mexicans while at the State Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M. From lockdowns in tribal communities to the economic and social fallout that has reverberated throughout New Mexico, the coronavirus pandemic dominated headlines in 2020. New Mexico had among the toughest public health restriction in the nation early on as Grisham called for the closure of gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Public gatherings were banned, sports were cancelled, curbside became the norm, funerals were frowned upon and schools were forced to go virtual. (New Mexico Office of the Governor via AP, File)
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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — From lockdowns in tribal communities to the economic and social fallout reverberating through every facet of life in New Mexico, the coronavirus pandemic dominated headlines in 2020.

COVID-19 infections were on track to top 140,000 by the end of the year, with the curve taking its steepest rise in November as part of what state health officials described as the third surge to hit New Mexico.

By the start of December, nearly 1,600 New Mexicans had succumbed to the virus. Three weeks later, the death toll had increased by more than 40%.

Hospitals warned they were on the brink of being overrun as available beds became scarce. Some of the pressure eased just before Christmas as new infections tapered off.

New Mexico had among the toughest public health restrictions in the nation early on as Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for the closure of gyms, salons and other businesses deemed nonessential. Public gatherings were banned, sports were canceled, curbside became the norm, funerals were frowned upon and schools were forced to go virtual.

Countless small businesses have been unable to weather the unprecedented challenges and may never reopen. Unemployment hit record highs and one of the state’s top economic drivers — oil and gas — felt the sting of both a global price war and reduced demand due to the pandemic.

Legislators scrambled during two special sessions to balance the state budget and then funnel economic aid to more New Mexicans.

The refrain of masks, hand washing and distancing became inescapable as health officials hoped to limit infections.

Household staples such as toilet paper were rationed, and lines formed at entrances of grocery stores due to capacity restrictions. Businesses sued the state unsuccessfully over restrictions. The state Supreme Court is weighing whether the state should reimburse businesses losses.

With the end of the year came the first COVID-19 vaccinations for more than 14,000 frontline health care workers.

Here are other top stories of the year:



New Mexico voters participated in record numbers while choosing Joe Biden by an 11% margin over Donald Trump, even as the GOP won back a congressional swing seat. Most voters opted for absentee ballots due to the pandemic, while Republicans cried foul over ballot drop boxes in lawsuits. Democrats maintained their legislative majorities. But Republican Yvette Herrell unseated incumbent Congresswoman Xochitl Torres Small, and the GOP made gains in voter registration in the Democratic-leaning state. While it marked the first time the state would be sending an all-female U.S. House delegation to Congress, that could change with U.S. Rep. Deb Haaland's pending nomination to serve as head of the Interior Department in a Biden administration.



In June, a man was shot and wounded as protesters in New Mexico’s largest city tried to tear down a bronze statue of Spanish conquistador Juan de Oñate outside the Albuquerque Museum. Just hours earlier, activists celebrated the removal of another likeness of Oñate on display outside a cultural center in the community of Alcalde. Rio Arriba County officials removed it to avoid property damage and civil unrest. In October, protesters took over the Santa Fe Plaza and toppled an obelisk dedicated in part to the “heroes” who died in battle with “savage Indians.” Arrests were made. Santa Fe plans to form a committee to address controversial monuments and long-standing racial tensions.



New Mexico's failing education system remained on trial in 2020, as plaintiffs in a long-running lawsuit said the Public Education Department still was not doing enough to ensure an adequate education for all students. While the case has centered on Native Americans, English language learners and low-income students, more concerns were raised this year over the lack of access to broadband connectivity and laptops as in-person classes were canceled. Parents, lawmakers and others say pandemic pressures have weakened an already shaky system. State education officials confirmed that failure rates were ballooning among students and enrollment had taken a dive.



Utility regulators approved a renewable energy plan to replace the coal-fired San Juan Generating Station in northwestern New Mexico. After decades of operation, the power plant is set to go offline in 2022. The approval set the stage for the development of solar farms in San Juan, Rio Arriba and McKinley counties. Backup battery storage will be part of the mix. Developers this year also completed the largest wind farm to ever be built in New Mexico, and Lujan Grisham’s administration began developing rules for curbing methane and other pollution in the oil and gas industry.



Virgin Galactic encountered both progress and a recent setback in its test flight program that takes aim at providing commercial flights into the near reaches of space. The company started the year by relocating its spaceship and carrier plane to its headquarters at Spaceport America. In May, the company marked its first glide flight from the futuristic desert outpost. After a delay due to pandemic restrictions, Virgin Galactic in December attempted its first rocket-powered trip to space from the spaceport. That test ended prematurely when a lost connection between the ship's onboard monitoring system and rocket motor prevented ignition. The ship glided down safely to its landing site.



Federal managers warned in September that if hot and dry conditions persisted, the stretch of the Rio Grande flowing through Albuquerque could dry up. It was a rough year for the river and waterways around New Mexico as the state sank deeper into drought. Conditions at the end of 2020 were far worse than a year ago. Along the Pecos River, water managers had to augment flows with pumped groundwater. New Mexico and Texas remained locked in a battle before the U.S. Supreme Court over management of the Rio Grande, but the court did side with New Mexico in a separate case involving the Pecos River and accounting for evaporation.



A decade-long hunt for hidden treasure was resolved with the discovery in Wyoming of a chest stashed away by Santa Fe-based art and antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn. Fenn died in September at age 90, a few months after announcing that his mystery had been solved. Fenn, also a decorated U.S. Air Force fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, left clues to finding the treasure in a poem in a memoir entitled “The Thrill of the Chase.” At least four people died searching for the chest before Jonathan “Jack” Stuef found it.



A push to legalize marijuana went up in smoke but advocates for recreational pot, including Lujan Grisham, vowed to make it happen in 2021. Meanwhile, an advisory board recommended an increase to consumer purchasing limits for the state's longstanding medical cannabis program and urged regulators to throw out the state’s plant count limit for licensed producers. The board also recommended adding more qualifying conditions, including anxiety and some substance abuse disorders. Enrollment in the program reached a high of more than 100,000 people.



New Mexico's largest city again drew unwanted attention for its struggles with crime. President Donald Trump included Albuquerque among the cities where he dispatched more federal agents to beef up local policing efforts. The city has been operating for several years under a consent decree with the U.S. Justice Department over issues of excessive force. A court-appointed monitor tasked with assessing compliance said in his most recent report that the police department has “failed miserably" to police itself. Democratic Mayor Tim Keller proposed overhauling the city's approach to public safety. A search began for a new police chief.