Las Cruces funeral home cited for violating mass gathering ban
LAS CRUCES - Funerals in New Mexico are defined as mass gatherings under an amended public health order issued Thursday by the state Department of Health.
Mass gatherings of more than five individuals are prohibited under public health orders. Under the previous order, that included "any public gathering, private gathering, organized event, ceremony, parade, organized amateur contact sport, or other grouping that brings more than five (5) individuals."
The new order, signed Thursday by acting health secretary Billy Jimenez, added the word "funeral" to that definition.
The new order was followed by a cease and desist order issued by state police Thursday night at the home of Terry Getz, who opened Getz Funeral Home in Las Cruces 50 years ago.
The DOH letter demanded a funeral scheduled for Friday morning be canceled, or the business would face a $5,000 civil fine.
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The letter stated: "It has come to the attention of the Department that Getz Funeral Home intends to hold an in-person visitation, and a subsequent funeral service, for a decedent named Thomas Mobley. Upon information and belief, these in-person events are expected to draw over one hundred attendees. These events, and similar in-person events, violate the Public Health Order's prohibition against mass gatherings."
Thomas Mobley Jr., a rancher and retired banker who served on numerous nonprofit and charitable foundation boards in Las Cruces, died on Nov. 2 at age 82 from complications of COVID-19, according to his family obituary.
Chad Getz, the funeral home's general manager, said the health department initially contacted the business by phone and disclosed that a complaint about the funeral had been made by an unnamed elected official.
The DOH did not confirm whether it had disclosed anything about a complainant.
Funeral proceeds despite order
Mobley's funeral proceeded as planned Friday with approximately 60 people attending at the East Bowman Avenue funeral home. Everyone present wore a mask, and some wore face shields as well.
At the start of the service, general manager Chad Getz stepped in front of Mobley's casket, which was dressed with flowers and a cowboy hat next to a saddle, and reminded participants that wearing masks and maintaining physical distance between individuals was mandatory on the premises.
The attendees were dispersed among the pews seated two and three to a row, while a family of six shared a pew at the back of the chapel.
A pastor then proceeded to lead the service.
Around 1:15 p.m., two state police officers arrived at the funeral home and issued general manager Chad Getz a citation for violating the public health order.
Getz said his business considers funeral services to be worship services and had been applying the 40 percent occupancy limit applied to places of worship under the public health orders. With a chapel that seats 300, Getz said they have capped attendance at services to 120.
Getz also said staff apply fog disinfectant following services.
Houses of worship are defined in public health orders as "any church, synagogue, mosque, or other gathering space where persons congregate to exercise their religious beliefs."
Getz argued that the chapel of a funeral home counts as such a gathering space. The health department disagrees.
"The Getz Funeral Home is a for-profit business and not a house of worship despite what the owner may say," spokeswoman Jodi McGinnis Porter said Thursday. "They are subject to the mass gathering limit and have been issued a cease-and-desist … after the owner expressed very clearly he would move forward with hosting a funeral service at his business with multiple individuals in attendance who are COVID-positive. His business — and this event — represent an imminent public health menace to the community and state."
Getz said he was unaware whether individuals had traveled from El Paso, where COVID-19 has been surging with daily cases exceeding 1,000, hospitals inundated with patients and high numbers of fatalities.
"I wasn't checking license plates and I didn't ask for positive or negative tests to come into our facility," Getz said, maintaining that his focus was on providing a dignified service for loved ones of the deceased to grieve and pay their respects.
"We're not at a senior prom. We're not here to tell you that you can't get close, because it's a funeral … but we do encourage that," Getz told reporters after receiving the citation. "We also do online streaming of most of our services, if the family's OK with it, to encourage folks to stay at home or stay out of state and not come into town and expose everybody."
Getz claimed that "every funeral home in the state has been practicing the same practice as we do."
However, two other funeral homes in Las Cruces — Baca's Funeral Chapels and La Paz-Graham's Funeral Home — both stated Friday that they limit visitations to fewer than five people at a time on a rotating basis.
Getz did not say whether he intends to challenge the citation, saying he had until Dec. 7 to make that decision. He disclosed that two upcoming services have been modified or canceled as a result of Friday's citation.
While pledging to follow the rules, Getz said prohibiting in-person funerals would be painful for families.
"When a loved one passes away their spouse lives that day every day for the rest of their lives," Getz said. "A funeral gives a centralized spot for people to come together and express their grief."