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New Mexico Invokes Riot Law to Control Virus Near Navajo Nation

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.

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 percent 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.

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Credit…Adriana Zehbrauskas for The New York Times

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,” Mr. Bonaguidi said. “Immediate action is necessary.”

Mr. Bonaguidi on Sunday requested an extension of the lockdown and the governor said she would sign an order on 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,” Mr. 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 Ms. 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 percent of New Mexico’s confirmed coronavirus cases, while making up about 11 percent 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 Ms. Lujan Grisham last week by telling businesses to reopen. (The state Supreme Court has ordered the mayor, Martin Hicks, to obey the state orders.)

Mr. 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,” Mr. 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 Ms. Alonzo, who emphasized that she had not left her home since the lockdown began.

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

Mitch Smith in Overland Park, Kan., and Alex Schwartz in Sarasota, Fla., contributed reporting.

  • Updated April 11, 2020

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.

    • When will this end?

      This is a difficult question, because a lot depends on how well the virus is contained. A better question might be: “How will we know when to reopen the country?” In an American Enterprise Institute report, Scott Gottlieb, Caitlin Rivers, Mark B. McClellan, Lauren Silvis and Crystal Watson staked out four goal posts for recovery: Hospitals in the state must be able to safely treat all patients requiring hospitalization, without resorting to crisis standards of care; the state needs to be able to at least test everyone who has symptoms; the state is able to conduct monitoring of confirmed cases and contacts; and there must be a sustained reduction in cases for at least 14 days.

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • How does coronavirus spread?

      It seems to spread very easily from person to person, especially in homes, hospitals and other confined spaces. The pathogen can be carried on tiny respiratory droplets that fall as they are coughed or sneezed out. It may also be transmitted when we touch a contaminated surface and then touch our face.

    • Is there a vaccine yet?

      No. Clinical trials are underway in the United States, China and Europe. But American officials and pharmaceutical executives have said that a vaccine remains at least 12 to 18 months away.

    • What makes this outbreak so different?

      Unlike the flu, there is no known treatment or vaccine, and little is known about this particular virus so far. It seems to be more lethal than the flu, but the numbers are still uncertain. And it hits the elderly and those with underlying conditions — not just those with respiratory diseases — particularly hard.

    • What if somebody in my family gets sick?

      If the family member doesn’t need hospitalization and can be cared for at home, you should help him or her with basic needs and monitor the symptoms, while also keeping as much distance as possible, according to guidelines issued by the C.D.C. If there’s space, the sick family member should stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. If masks are available, both the sick person and the caregiver should wear them when the caregiver enters the room. Make sure not to share any dishes or other household items and to regularly clean surfaces like counters, doorknobs, toilets and tables. Don’t forget to wash your hands frequently.

    • Should I stock up on groceries?

      Plan two weeks of meals if possible. But people should not hoard food or supplies. Despite the empty shelves, the supply chain remains strong. And remember to wipe the handle of the grocery cart with a disinfecting wipe and wash your hands as soon as you get home.

    • Should I pull my money from the markets?

      That’s not a good idea. Even if you’re retired, having a balanced portfolio of stocks and bonds so that your money keeps up with inflation, or even grows, makes sense. But retirees may want to think about having enough cash set aside for a year’s worth of living expenses and big payments needed over the next five years.


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