New Mexico invokes riot law to control virus near Navajo Nation

(Patrick Sandoval via AP) This photo provided by Patrick Sandoval shows authorities cordon off sections of the roadway in Gallup in Gallup, N.M., on Friday, May 1, 2020. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invoked the state's Riot Control Act on Friday as she sealed off all roads to nonessential traffic in one of the largest communities bordering the Navajo Nation, where a surging coronavirus outbreak has already prompted widespread restrictions and weekend lockdowns.

Gallup, N.M. • All the roads into this city on the edge of the Navajo Nation are closed. The soldiers at the checkpoints have their orders: Outsiders must turn around and drive away.

Cities across the country have closed down businesses and ordered residents to remain at home, but the threat of the coronavirus in Gallup became so serious last week that Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invoked the state’s Riot Control Act to lock down the entire city. The downtown of shops, bars and Indian trading posts is now nearly deserted.

“We’re scared to death, so this had to be done,” said Amber Nez, 27, a shoe store saleswoman and Navajo Nation citizen who lives in Gallup and is pregnant with her fourth child. “I only wonder why we didn’t do this sooner.”

The lockdown comes as state and local authorities grapple with one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the United States on the nearby Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Indian reservation, and a surge in detected cases in places near the reservation.

As of Sunday, the Navajo Nation had reported a total of 2,373 cases and 73 confirmed deaths from the virus. With a rate of 46 deaths per 100,000 people, the tribal nation has a higher coronavirus death rate than every state in the country except New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

While Gallup is not within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation, the city of 22,000 serves as a regional hub for the Navajo and other nearby Native American pueblos. Many citizens of various tribal nations regularly drive into Gallup to buy food and other goods.

The refusal to follow social distancing guidelines by some residents of Gallup and other so-called border towns near the reservation has emerged as a source of tension, as tribal authorities say the behavior is undermining their attempts to control the virus.

[Read more: Valentina Blackhorse, Navajo pageant winner with dreams, dies of coronavirus at 28]

The Gallup area had the third-highest rate of infection of any metropolitan area in the United States as of Sunday. Only the areas around New York City and Marion, Ohio, the site of a large prison cluster, had higher rates.

McKinley County, which includes Gallup, now accounts for about 30% of all confirmed coronavirus cases in New Mexico, surpassing counties in the state with much larger populations.

In addition to shutting down all roads into Gallup, including the exits off the interstate highway, the lockdown order directs the essential businesses that are still operating to close from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. Nonessential businesses remain entirely closed in Gallup, as they are in other parts of New Mexico.

The order also prohibits residents from leaving their homes except for emergency or essential outings and allows only two people in vehicles at a time.

Soldiers from the New Mexico National Guard were stationed at some of the checkpoints into Gallup on Sunday. Dusty Francisco, a spokesman for the New Mexico State Police, said the agency had sent 32 officers to assist.

Mayor Louis Bonaguidi, who requested the lockdown, said he understood that the ask was unusual. “However, the COVID-19 outbreak in the city of Gallup is a crisis of the highest order,” Bonaguidi said. “Immediate action is necessary.”

Bonaguidi on Sunday requested an extension of the lockdown, and the governor signed an order Monday extending the measure until Thursday at noon.

Jonathan Nez, president of the Navajo Nation, said he fully supported the lockdown order. “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 said.

Before the lockdown, tribal leaders complained that their attempts to curb infections on the reservation by setting curfews and creating checkpoints were being undermined when Navajo citizens ventured into Gallup. Residents of Gallup also groused that many people were ignoring social distancing guidelines by crowding into vehicles and food stores.

The riot control law invoked by the governor allows police to issue misdemeanor citations for first-time violators. Repeat offenders could face felony charges.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for Lujan Grisham, said that the governor’s legal advisers were not aware of the riot law being used before in the state.

But state officials said they were responding to building concern about the potential for the virus to devastate Native American peoples. While New Mexico has largely succeeded in limiting the overall spread of the virus around much of the state, the transmission levels among Native Americans remain alarming.

Native Americans account for 53% of New Mexico’s confirmed coronavirus cases, while making up about 11% of the state’s population. Epidemiologists list several contributing factors, including multiple generations living in single households on reservations and a shortage of running water, making basic hygiene difficult.

The fight to curb the spread of the virus in Gallup comes at a time of anger over the Trump administration’s failure to distribute the billions of dollars in coronavirus relief allocated to tribes in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package.

Tribes including the Navajo Nation are suing the Treasury Department over its decision to allow for-profit native corporations in Alaska, in which Native Alaskans hold shares, to access the federal relief. The suit argues that the decision effectively diminishes the pool of money available to tribes in their fight against the virus.

While the tribes spar with the federal government, Gallup stands in contrast to some towns in New Mexico where elected officials are adopting defiant positions against social distancing measures.

In the nearby town of Grants, also located near tribal nations in western New Mexico, the mayor openly defied Lujan Grisham last week by telling businesses to reopen. (The state Supreme Court has ordered the mayor, Martin Hicks, to obey the state orders.)

Hicks has asserted that Navajos were to blame for spreading the virus, openly expressing an unsubstantiated position that seems to be gaining traction in towns near Native American reservations.

“We didn’t take it to them; they brought it to us,” Hicks said in a telephone interview, without offering any proof. “So how are we going to spread it amongst them when they’re the ones that brought it to us?”

Meanwhile, some in Gallup are fretting over the potential for increased transmission across the state line as businesses in nearby Arizona prepare to reopen.

Linda Alonzo, the postmaster, said that the lockdown was “absolutely needed.”

“You’d go into Walmart; the parking lot was full; people weren’t doing much distancing,” said Alonzo, who emphasized that she had not left her home since the lockdown began.

“We needed something extreme,” she said, “and this was it.”