SANTA FE – Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Friday invoked a rarely used state law, putting Gallup on lockdown for three days in an attempt to slow the coronavirus outbreak that has been running rampant across northwest New Mexico.
The emergency order under the state’s Riot Control Act closed all roads going into Gallup for most non-residents and directed Gallup residents to stay at home unless it’s absolutely necessary to go outside.
In issuing the order, Lujan Grisham said a COVID-19 outbreak in one part of New Mexico poses a problem for the entire state.
“The spread of this virus in McKinley County is frightful,” the governor said, “and it shows that physical distancing has not occurred and is not occurring. The virus is running amok there. It must be stopped, and stricter measures are necessary.”
In addition to closing roads, the three-day emergency order mandates that all businesses in Gallup be closed from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. during the lockdown, with the exception of medical facilities, and that no more than two people travel together in a vehicle.
The drastic order is aimed at slowing the spread of coronavirus in one of northwest New Mexico’s largest cities – and a shopping destination for many members of the Navajo Nation and other outlying areas.
Gallup is the seat of McKinley County, which has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, with 1,064 confirmed cases and 20 deaths, as of Friday.
That means more than 1 out of every 100 county residents have tested positive for COVID-19, based on 2019 U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
New Mexico’s total death toll from the coronavirus hit 131 on Friday, with state health officials reporting eight additional deaths due to complications from COVID-19.
The most recent deaths included three from nursing homes in San Juan County – a woman in her 70s and a woman in her 80s who were residents at Life Care Center in Farmington, and a woman in her 90s who was a resident of Cedar Ridge Inn in Farmington.
In all, the state now has 3,513 confirmed cases of the virus, though infection rates have slowed in other parts of the state.
As of Friday, there were 159 people hospitalized in New Mexico due to COVID-19 and state officials have designated 785 people as having recovered from the disease – or about 22.3% of those infected.
‘Drastic measures’ needed
Bill Lee, CEO of the Gallup McKinley County Chamber of Commerce, said Gallup’s usual population of roughly 22,000 can swell to 100,000 people or more on weekends and paydays when people from around the area come to do their shopping.
That role as a regional trade center has made it difficult to enforce social distancing guidelines and the outgoing mayor of Gallup asked Lujan Grisham on Thursday to put the city on lockdown.
The order could have an economic impact and Lee said in an interview: “If I told you the business community was happy about it, I would not be telling you the full truth.”
But he said most business owners were hopeful the emergency order would be a positive development – if it ends up reducing person-to-person contact.
“We have to take some drastic measures to flatten the curve and slow the virus … so that we can get our economy rolling again,” Lee told the Journal.
Elected officials in the city – and in nearby tribal areas – have also backed the governor’s action.
Rep. Patricia Lundstrom, a Gallup Democrat and chairwoman of the House Appropriations and Finance Committee, said she hopes limiting traffic in and out of Gallup provides some relief.
“We’re keeping our fingers crossed out here that this thing will turn around,” Lundstrom said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez also applauded the restrictions imposed by Lujan Grisham and urged tribal members to stay home as much as possible to restrict the spread of COVID-19.
‘A crisis of the highest order’
Shortly after Friday’s emergency order was announced, the state Department of Transportation said it had set up roadblocks to restrict traffic going into Gallup from all directions.
Interstate 40, which passes through Gallup, will remain open, as will nearby truck stops and rest areas, DOT spokeswoman Marisa Maez said.
But checkpoints were set up on all I-40 exits and off-ramps, and message boards alerting drivers to the lockdown were posted along roadways on the outskirts of Gallup, Maez added.
Only residents of Gallup, those who work in the city and members of the media will be able to pass through the checkpoints, which are being manned by State Police and New Mexico National Guard members.
Under the state Riot Control Act, local leaders, including mayors and sheriffs, can ask the governor to proclaim a state of emergency in an affected area.
While Lujan Grisham issued the emergency order, she did not prohibit the sale of alcohol or ban possession of guns or other weapons outside personal residences, also allowable actions under the law.
“I recognize this request is unusual and constitutes a drastic measure, and the emergency powers set out under the Riot Control Act should be invoked sparingly,” new Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi said Friday. “However, the COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Gallup is a crisis of the highest order.”
Gallup civic leaders say the coronavirus outbreak has stretched the city’s medical facilities and resources to their capacity.
And even before the lockdown order, Gallup city officials and area legislators had asked the New Mexico National Guard to help enforce social distancing guidelines at grocery stores.
Roughly 50 National Guard members were deployed for the purpose last month.
Journal staff writers Dan McKay and Elise Kaplan contributed to this report.