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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
GALLUP – Around 3 p.m. Monday, the mayor of Gallup received a call from a bank manager saying an armored truck delivering money to the branch was stopped at the checkpoint outside of town and couldn’t get in.
Another call had come in that morning from a woman who wanted to check on her 80-year-old father and was hysterical at being told she couldn’t cross the city limits.
And another woman was moving and had been directed to pick up her U-Haul in Gallup, which, of course, now she could not do.
Since the Governor’s Office ordered a lockdown of Gallup on Friday, Mayor Louis Bonaguidi said his office phone has been ringing off the hook with questions from residents and logistics as they determine what vehicles are essential and should be allowed in.
But for the most part, he said, the calls and emails he and his staff have received have been from people who approve of the drastic measure to stem the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a start,” said Bonaguidi in an interview Monday afternoon. “… We just want to see if we can make a difference.”
As of Monday, McKinley County had 1,233 reported cases of COVID-19. That’s 289 more cases than in Bernalillo County, which has nine times its population, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
Bonaguidi said the purpose of the lockdown is twofold – to protect the city’s residents from outsiders bringing the virus in as they do their shopping or stop off to gas up or eat on their travels and to protect outsiders from contracting the disease in Gallup and spreading it further.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office has extended the order through Thursday at noon, although Bonaguidi says it’s possible it will have to continue.
“We’re watching the numbers as closely as possible but they’re not changing too much at this point,” Bonaguidi said. “I’m hoping the numbers will start changing drastically here soon.”
186 new cases, 5 more deaths
On Monday, state officials announced 136 of New Mexico’s 186 additional coronavirus cases were from McKinley and San Juan counties.
Combined, the two counties now have 2,014 cases, nearly half of New Mexico’s total of 4,031.
New Mexico officials also announced five more deaths from the disease, bringing the death toll to 156. The deaths included a female in her 70s from Bernalillo County, a female in her 50s from McKinley County, a male in his 60s from McKinley County, a male in his 60s from Sandoval County and a male in his 60s from San Juan County. Four of the deceased had been hospitalized, and all had underlying medical conditions.
Twenty-one people in McKinley County have died from COVID-19, and neighboring San Juan County has reported 57 deaths. The 78 COVID-19 deaths in the two counties account for half of New Mexico’s 156 deaths from the disease.
Both San Juan and McKinley counties encompass parts of the Navajo Nation. Although Native Americans represent 11% of the state’s population they make up about 55% of the state’s coronavirus cases.
The first of the month
Bonaguidi, who was sworn into office as mayor on Thursday, said even before he began his post on Friday he had been having conversations with his predecessor and the Governor’s Office about the high number of COVID cases in McKinley County.
On everyone’s mind was the first of the month, when residents from the five nearby Native reservations come into the city to do their shopping after getting paid. Bonaguidi said there are estimates that between 30,000 and 65,000 people come into the hub city to do their shopping the first weekend of the month.
“My God, we’re going to have 50,000 people coming into town, it can only get worse, they’re going to be taking it home to their families if anything, so that’s
when we decided we need to do something,” he said.
He said he and the previous mayor called the Governor’s Office and talked to her staff and health officials, and they determined it would be best to put the city on lockdown under the state’s rarely used Riot Control Act.
They also had to figure out ways to get water and other supplies to those who rely on trips to the city.
Many Navajo Nation residents normally visit water loading stations in Gallup to fill containers with water for hand-washing, cooking and drinking, so the New Mexico Department of Transportation set up water stations at two locations outside Gallup city limits.
In the small community of Thoreau, east of Gallup, Leland Barger and his family filled up several water tanks to haul to his father-in-law who lives near Bluewater Lake about 30 minutes away and doesn’t have running water. He said he and his family normally go to Gallup for their big shopping trips, and have instead had to go to Grants or convenience stores in smaller towns.
“It’s pretty scary, it’s real scary really,” Barger said, about the number of cases in the county.
And Navajo Nation employees and volunteers distributed food and supplies at the Red Rock Chapter House about 10 minutes south of Gallup, and at the Tsayatoh and Manuelito Chapters, each about 20 minutes west of the city.
The Navajo Nation had already limited unnecessary travel on and off tribal land and issued a stay-at-home order, a nightly curfew and a 57-hour curfew each weekend.
For his part, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said he supports the Gallup lockdown. He and other Navajo leaders encouraged residents to shop at reservation grocery stores instead of leaving to buy supplies.
“We have many members of the Navajo Nation that reside in Gallup and many that travel in the area and their health and safety is always our top priority,” Nez stated in a May 1 news release from Lujan Grisham’s office.
People adapt to lockdown
Monday afternoon, phones across McKinley County blared with an emergency alert about the lockdown. Highway signs along the interstate instructed drivers that “roads closed to stop the virus.”
New Mexico State Police, New Mexico National Guard, and Gallup Police Department officers check ID’s and credentials at highway exits. The McKinley County sheriff’s department and the New Mexico Department of Transportation also assisted with carrying out the emergency order.
In town, there is a lot less traffic. And most stores are closed or closed earlier than the 8 p.m. cutoff mandated in the order.
At an apartment complex outside of the main drag, Candace Begay took a video of her father, wearing a mask and hugging his grandchildren as they said “hi” and “we love you” to the camera.
She said she was going to send it to her mother, who lives outside of town and can’t come in to see the kids. Her father, on the other hand, works at the hospital and has been allowed into the city each day.
“My mom can’t come in here,” Begay said. “They miss their grandparents. We took the video for them to show and update her because she misses them too.”
She said she has noticed a lot less traffic on the street in front of her building over the past couple of days.
“I honestly thought it was a good idea,” Begay said. “I thought they should have done it a lot earlier. I think this is what’s needed to happen to get control of it and I was really glad they are enforcing it.”
Journal staff writer Dan Boyd contributed to this report.