Mountainair Mayor Peter Nieto takes to Facebook to post live videos updating his town on the latest news on COVID-19. So far, three residents have tested positive for the virus.
Out here in the rural reaches of New Mexico, you might think you’ve distanced yourself enough from the infectious contrails of COVID-19.
But Peter Nieto, mayor of Mountainair, knows that’s just not true.
“I’ve been warning citizens out here early on that we, too, need to take the coronavirus seriously,” said Nieto, whose town of about 900 sits smack-dab in the middle of the state, flanked by the Manzano Mountains to the west and endless, arid plains to the east.
“I’ve been warning that it’s coming,” he said. “It’s reality. It’s going to happen.”
On March 30, it did. State health officials announced that day that three individuals in Torrance County had tested positive for COVID-19. All of them are from Mountainair.
Nieto already knew that.
“One of them called me,” he said.
Everybody calls Nieto, who freely gives out his cellphone number to his constituents.
“People know me, know my family. I was born and raised here,” said Nieto, business manager of Mountainair Public Schools, who was elected to his first term as mayor in March 2018 after serving on the Town Council for two years.
At 33, he’s not much older than former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg was when he became mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
But few in town call him Mayor Pete.
“Only the newer people who don’t know me well call me that,” he said. “Most people just call me Peter.”
He likes it that way. And he likes that people do call him, especially these days as coronavirus spreads across the state and into his community. As of Tuesday, seven cases of COVID-19 have been reported in Torrance County, including the earlier three in Mountainair.
Nieto won’t reveal the identities of the three, of course, but he said he does know that one of them spread it to the other two and that they are all self-isolating at home.
When rumors of the positive COVID-19 tests in the community began to swirl, Nieto tried to be the calming voice in a storm of fear and confusion.
“The first night we heard we had a positive, a lot of people were unnerved,” he said. “I tried to be as informative and transparent as I can, and I think people get it.”
Every other day or so, Nieto live-streams on the Town of Mountainair’s page on Facebook, providing updates on the virus, dispelling rumors, answering complaints about noncompliance of public health orders and offering healthy challenges, such as calling an old friend, watching WrestleMania (his personal escape) on TV or going outside to take in the sunshine and, well, the mountain air.
“A lot of people feel isolated even more these days. They have cabin fever,” he said. “So I try to come up with ways to keep up the mental health.”
Most of the folks he hears from are on board with pandemic precautions, he said. But not all.
“Those who don’t, who don’t trust the government, who believe the government is lying – how should I say? – they don’t come to me, anyway, since I’m the government out here,” he said.
Mountainair is an eclectic community of families with deep ranching, railroad and farming roots. They are artists, retirees looking for small-town charm, tourists who came for the nearby pueblo mission ruins or the mountains and stayed.
Not surprisingly, Nieto thinks it’s the greatest little town in the country.
“We have everything we need right here,” he said. “The beauty, serenity. We had our own balloon fiesta last year, with 16 balloons and a matanza. And we’re only an hour or so away from the big city.”
What he didn’t want, what no one wanted, was COVID-19.
Mountainair’s small medical clinic isn’t equipped to test for the virus. The nearest hospital is Socorro General Hospital, more than an hour away. Recently, however, the state Health Department opened a COVID-19 testing site in Estancia, 23 miles northeast of Mountainair. Nieto frequently reminds constituents to call first for an appointment.
Nieto said he is pleased with the cooperation he’s seen in his community, though he remains concerned about too many folks gathering at the post office and not following social distancing measures.
The Dollar General and 7-Eleven, on the other hand, are complying, he said. Restaurants such as the Mustang Diner and Alpine Alley, and the town grocery store, B Street Market, are offering isolation-friendly take-home meals. Citizens are donating homemade masks, fruit and hand sanitizer.
“I have to say that we’re really coming together,” he said.
Besides running the town, doing his day job and posting his Facebook videos, Nieto also helps his mother raise the 16 children she has adopted over the years.
“I have no life,” he joked. “But I love it.”
Add to that his chief role these days as delivery man, taking food, face masks and whatever else anybody needs in his “Blue Beast,” a Toyota Tundra pickup painted a distinctive shade of azure called Voodoo Blue, a hue brilliant as the Mountainair sky.
“It’s just easier for me to do it because everybody knows me,” he said. “All I’m doing is delivering. It’s others who are donating. They’re the good guys.”
Nieto’s not so bad himself.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.