RIO RANCHO – There are no daily press conferences in Rio Rancho about the coronavirus, just people for the most part quietly following Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home orders.
While Sandoval County as a whole has seen big increases in the number of confirmed COVID-19 tests – a total of 199 as of Saturday – the majority of those have been in small Native American pueblos outside this city of about 100,000 people.
One confirmed test in a senior residential facility in the city led to additional testing of residents.
While the city’s fire department has seen an increase in calls for people suffering from “flu-like symptoms,” there appears to be little panic.
“Most people are taking it very seriously and complying with the stay-at-home orders,” Rio Rancho Police Lt. Ray Alderete said.
Like the rest of New Mexico, schools and many businesses defined as “nonessential” under the governor’s orders are closed. So are libraries, where seniors and children tended to congregate. The parks are closed and the sounds of little league and youth soccer are nowhere to be heard.
City Hall is operating by telephone and email.
“I think it is going as well as expected under the circumstances,” Mayor Greggory Hull said. “Some people are taking it extremely seriously, some people not as seriously.”
Alderete said that early in the shutdown Rio Rancho police responded to several reports of loud parties, but those stopped once the word got out that there would be enforcement of the public health order and that officers would be breaking up large gatherings.
“We saw a brief increase in vehicle burglaries and auto theft but we made a few arrests and that seems to have had an impact,” he said. “Right now, we’re getting domestic disputes, neighbor disputes and public nuisance calls – people four-wheeling near where people live.”
Rio Rancho has a high percentage of single-family homes coupled with one of the lower crime rates in the state. The department is concentrating on keeping patrols visible in residential and commercial areas.
The front desk and lobby of the police station are closed and there is a focus on keeping officers safe.
At the end of March, the department had no known exposures to the coronavirus among its officers.
“We’re providing N95 masks and training in putting the mask on and taking it off properly,” Alderete said.
Officers are receiving training, hand sanitizer and gloves.
“They are practicing social distancing while responding to calls,” he said.
Turtle Mountain Brewery in Rio Rancho has been in operation for 23 years, opening long before many of the local brew pubs that dot Albuquerque and Rio Rancho.
Owner Nico Ortiz is relying on a loyal customer base developed over more than two decades to keep his business going while doing takeout and delivery.
“We’re limping along as best we can,” he said.
But sales are about 40% of what they were when the restaurant was open, and Ortiz has had to lay off three quarters of the staff.
“It is pretty tough telling your people you have no hours for them to work,” he said. “These are folks that don’t have six months of salary saved up.”
Many of those employees have been with the restaurant and brewery for more than 10 years.
Ortiz said he has put in applications for different loans available under the $2 trillion federal relief package.
“Who knows when we’ll get anything,” Ortiz said. “I’m hopeful that New Mexicans will do the right thing and we’ll be able to come out of this sooner than later.”
Steve Pitt, owner of The Local Brewhouse, is not very hopeful for many small businesses in Rio Rancho.
“A lot won’t be reopening and a lot that do, won’t be open long,” Pitt said.
He said he learned from being in the restaurant and bar business during the financial collapse in 2008 to set aside money for a crisis like the current one.
“I don’t think a lot of small businesses are in that position,” Pitt said. “And, quite frankly, I don’t think the loan programs are going to help many of them.”
Pitt said he doesn’t think the programs are designed for small businesses and that local and state government don’t do enough to help them.
“They’re always offering incentives to large corporations, but never to small businesses,” Pitt said.
He shut down operations before Gov. Lujan Grisham’s order closing restaurants and bars.
“I wanted them (my employees) to get a chance to apply for unemployment before the rush,” Pitt said. “They’re just starting to get their checks now. It takes a couple of weeks. People don’t realize that.”
He plans to rehire each employee when he reopens.
“It is a really good business. I’d sell my house if I had to in order to keep it,” he said.
Jerry Schalow, president and CEO of the Rio Rancho Chamber of Commerce, is trying to educate small business owners about the different programs available.
“Banks, state agencies, even federal agencies are trying to figure out how to get this money out,” Schalow said.
Local businesses need to be looking at the various types of loans that are available.
Schalow worked in banking in the aftermath of hurricanes Ike and Katrina.
“In those disasters we were dealing with loss of property but now there is nothing wrong with the property besides the loss of revenue,” he said. “It is unique in many ways.”
He said federal loans – like the one for employers that provide loan forgiveness if they use 75% of the money to keep employees on the payroll – are coming on line.
“There are businesses that are closed that still have bills,” he said.
But there are loan programs that can help businesses survive until they can reopen, he said.
Over the last 40 years, Intel has become synonymous with Rio Rancho.
The company built the first high school in the city and received tax incentives to build its massive plant at Rio Rancho.
The Fab 11X plant has 400,000 square feet of clean room space. A major economic force, the plant has 1,200 employees – down from a high of several thousand in the 1990s – who manufacture and test products for mobile devices, desktop computers, servers and workstation computing.
A spokesman said shifts for production employees have been staggered to allow for social distancing while they change into their white suits and other protective gear they wear in “clean rooms.” Non-production employees are working from home.
The company has also been contributing to various charities and Public Affairs Director Erika Edgerly announced last week the company was shipping 20,000 surgical masks to the state government to be distributed where they are most needed.
“It will take all of us working together to make sure our community emerges from this stronger than ever,” Edgerly said.
Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue has seen a jump in the number of calls for “flu-like symptoms,” which are running between 17 and 24 a day out of a daily average of 75 to 85 rescue calls.
“We assume going into those calls that the person may be positive for the virus,” Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue Chief Paul Bearce said. “Our responders wear the appropriate gear.”
Bearce said the department is taking all efforts to make sure crews have personal protective gear.
“We established decontamination – disinfectant – process for the trucks and equipment as well as the crews on the call,” he said.
The department is coordinating with Albuquerque Fire Rescue and exchanging information on best practices for safety in dealing with patients who may have the virus.
“It really is unprecedented what we’re dealing with” Bearce said. “We’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime.”
Rio Rancho gets much of its news from Albuquerque media. And the city tends to make news only when a major car crash snarls traffic or tragedy strikes – like the 2015 killing of Rio Rancho Police officer Gregg “Nigel” Benner.
On the anniversary of his death, impromptu memorials are placed at a tree on Pinetree Street near where Benner died. The memorials are never vandalized. It’s that sort of town. They are removed by the city and put in a nearby park.
Mayor Hull worries most about small businesses.
“The biggest concerns I hear are from small business owners,” he said. “They’re terrified of losing everything they’ve worked for. How do they pay the rent?”
How well the city manages the financial crunch caused by the coronavirus is also on Hull’s mind.
“The city is on a tight budget,” he said, “but we’re going to have to look at where it can be cut.
“We’re in the storm and how do we recover from it? We know where some of the impacts are going to be but not all of them.
“There are unknowns that we can’t prepare for – like how long will this last.”