SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — New Mexico health officials are warning residents that fraudulent face mask exemption cards are being distributed to the public.
The cards falsely purport to be issued by the New Mexico Department of Health and the U.S. Justice Department, and officials say anyone caught creating or using the cards could face a felony charge.
Federal authorities also have issued similar warnings elsewhere that such cards are fake.
Face coverings are mandated in New Mexico as part of a public health order aimed at keep the coronavirus in check. While daily case counts in New Mexico have declined since spiking in July, officials continue to issue reminders about masks via social media posts and messages on electronic highway billboards around the state.
The fake cards display the logos of the two agencies and claim that denial of the cardholder access to a business or organization despite not wearing a face mask will result in a fine. The state’s public health order requires the opposite — that people wear face coverings when out in public unless instruction from a health care provider can be presented.
State health officials say they understand that wearing masks might not be possible for all people, including those who are deaf or hard of hearing and people with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
“People lying about a medical condition to get out of wearing a face mask literally puts their lives and that of those around them at risk,” state Health Secretary Kathy Kunkel said in a statement. “New Mexicans deserve to feel safe out in public, and fraudulent messaging like this is both illegal and potentially dangerous to people’s health.”
The Health Department is working with the state attorney general’s office to ensure anyone issuing fraudulent exemption cards is prosecuted.
Officials also are asking the public to report any violations of the public health order, which also forbids large gatherings and prohibits restaurants from offering indoor dining.
It will be up to the New Mexico Supreme Court to settle a case over whether the state health secretary has the authority under New Mexico law to restrict or close restaurants and other businesses to protect public health. The court announced Wednesday that it has scheduled arguments in case for Aug. 26.
In all, health officials have reported more than 22,800 cases and nearly 700 deaths in New Mexico since the pandemic began.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.