Bonaguidi was not disappointed to hear that state troopers would be deployed to blockade all roads into Gallup. He was relieved: This was the only way, he believed, to stop local hospitals from spinning out of control during a novel coronavirusoutbreak that already had overwhelmed them.
Less than an hour’s drive east on historic Route 66, in the even smaller city of Grants, the mayor was fighting a very different enemy last week: the governor.
Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks was screaming at state troopers he had derided as “Gestapo” and leading a rebellion against Lujan Grisham’s statewide stay-at-home orders. He was encouraging local businesses on the city’s hard-luck main drag to defiantly reopen. There was no sense shutting down the economy, Hicks said, just because of a virus that, like the flu, needed to be left to “take its course.”
The disparate reactions from two mayors within the same region of a single state reflect America’s ever-widening gulf in the struggle against covid-19. As the country attempts to navigate its way out of a pandemic without slipping into full economic depression, every state, city and county leader is making his or her own determinations about how to weigh the threats.
They’re coming to very different conclusions.
Gallup and Grants — though geographically close on either side of the Continental Divide — represent opposite ends of the spectrum. One mayor volunteered for his city to be cut off from the world, a surefire blow to the economy, but one that might save lives. Another sought to boost flailing local businesses, but in a way that public health experts — and the governor — say is deeply reckless.
Where on that continuum the country ultimately lands will dictate the course of its struggle with a disease that has claimed more than 72,000 lives, infected more than 1.2 million and forced more than 30 million people out of work.
“Some community leaders are doing everything right. They understand the gravity of the situation,” Lujan Grisham said in a written response to questions. “Others do not seem to believe it is all that serious, despite the disease ravaging their constituencies.”
For the latter, Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, blamed “the toxic partisanship we see in certain national media outlets and from certain national figures, stoking this kind of radical discontent with undertones of violence.”
President Trump has repeatedly encouraged the backlash against stay-at-home orders, despite the fact that his scientific advisers have described protests at state capitol buildings as “devastatingly worrisome.”
The differing responses reflect, at least in part, the caprice of a virus that has meted out its pain unevenly. Some areas have been devastated, others barely touched.
The lightly populated county surrounding Grants, Cibola, has seen just 74 confirmed novel coronavirus cases as of Wednesday. In neighboring McKinley County, home of Gallup, there have been 1,274, or about 30 percent of the state’s total. Behind Sioux City, Iowa, the area has the fastest-growing infection rate in the country.
As Bonaguidi prepared to be sworn in as mayor last week, he was watching with alarm as the virus ripped through his community. The city’s two hospitals both reached capacity, forcing medical officials to construct a makeshift facility for recovering covid-19 patients at a local high school.
He worried the situation was about to get much worse: The first payday weekend of the month typically brings tens of thousands of people to the city to shop, many from the five Native American reservations that ring Gallup. The reservations already had been hit hard with infections. A big shopping weekend could be disastrous for city and reservations alike.
So after consulting with Native leaders, Bonaguidi and the outgoing mayor, Jackie McKinney, opted for what they acknowledged was “a drastic measure.” They would write to the governor and ask to be locked down. The covid-19 outbreak “is a crisis of the highest order,” their letter said.
Lujan Grisham said her response “was not a hard decision.”
“The state guidelines were not being heeded,” she said. “Stronger action was necessary.”
She invoked the seldom-used Riot Control Act to deploy state troopers, who set up roadblocks at the city limits and have barred anyone without an essential reason for visiting Gallup — such as to seek medical care — from entry.
The order has since been extended until Thursday at noon; it could be extended again, even if it means greater economic pain.
“With a lengthy shutdown, a small isolated economy like this is going to go under,” said Tracy Lister, who runs one of the few open storefronts in town, a coffee shop offering beverages to go. “But don’t do anything, and you have a disease running rampant,”
The prosperous city of 22,000 relies on people coming in from outside Gallup to shop. Bonaguidi, whose family has sold cowboy boots and moccasins from a city storefront for nearly a century, knows that as well as anyone.
“We’ve got people who are not happy, for sure,” Bonaguidi said. “This hurts.”
But he said that residents on the whole have been understanding. Without dramatic action now, he tells them, the damage will be far greater in the long run.
“Yesterday, I decided to take a drive out to the roadblocks. People are bringing the troopers water, bringing them KFC,” he said. “Hopefully the numbers improve in our favor and show that we did do the right thing.”
The decision already is appreciated in the nearby Navajo Nation, said President Jonathan Nez.
The reservations, Nez said, have been devastated by the novel coronavirus, and for a variety of reasons: among them, a lack of running water, medical infrastructure, government funding, Internet access and adequate housing.
All of it adds up to one of the highest infection rates for any community in the nation. As of Tuesday, the Navajo Nation had recorded 2,559 positive cases, including 79 deaths.
Nez said he was grateful to Bonaguidi for locking down Gallup, “knowing it would devastate his economy. But the safety and well-being of all citizens is what’s important.”
The calculus was different for Hicks, the mayor in Grants.
The city of 9,000 was facing economic depression before the coronavirus outbreak, its once-vibrant industry of uranium mining having declined years ago. The main street is occupied by abandoned motels and storefronts, active automotive shops and the shuttered Uranium Diner.
“Coronavirus has been insult to injury,” said Ronnie Pynes, 68, who co-owns a handbag store and a storage facility in Grants with his wife, Cheryl.
Three weeks ago, Pynes decided the city had “bled long enough” and started a petition to open local stores in defiance of a state order banning nonessential businesses from operating. He said he believes the virus is a threat, but a manageable one that doesn’t justify collapsing the economy.
“People die in car accidents and we drive anyway,” he said. “I don’t need the governor to tell me how to operate my place of business.”
Pynes and friends collected 83 signatures and presented them to Hicks, who began encouraging businesses to open up. He told the Associated Press that he instructed merchants to “call 911 if state police show up to their place. We are going to stop Lujan Grisham and her Gestapo.”
On April 27, approximately 10 local businesses opened, and Hicks, a Democrat, helped lead a couple dozen people in protest of the state’s restrictions. He also ordered city employees to return to work, firing the city manager when she refused to open the municipal golf course.
State police issued several warnings and a fine of $60,000 to the owner of a combined gun store and pawnshop — $5,000 for each day that it stayed open after the governor’s order kicked in.
Troopers served Hicks with a letter from the New Mexico attorney general saying that “death and serious illness are likely to increase in Grants” as a result of his actions and asking the state supreme court to intervene.
“I must be intimidating as all get-out for it to take three of you to deliver this letter!” Hicks said he yelled at the troopers as they approached.
On April 30, the court sided with the attorney general, ordering Hicks to comply with the governor’s orders. None of the nonessential businesses that briefly opened last week appeared to be operating in Grants this week.
“If someone wants to violate the law and encourage lawlessness, that’s unfortunate, but it’ll be dealt with,” Lujan Grisham said.
Hicks was unrepentant, noting that he understands the coronavirus is here but that the government should not force every American into a life-altering situation.
But not everyone in his city agrees. Thomas Whelan, chief executive of Cibola General Hospital in Grants, said his medical experts had warned against an abrupt reopening of the city, especially given its proximity to one of the country’s fastest-growing hot spots.
“They recognize that Gallup is only 45 minutes away,” he said in an email response to questions, adding that he had not spoken with the mayor. The hospital’s small intensive care unit could be overwhelmed with “only a few very ill patients,” he said.
Henry Lackey, who runs the Route 66 Junkyard Brewery out of an old salvage yard, also opposes a rapid reopening. In pre-pandemic times, the 47-year-old served beer in a spacious garage filled with classic cars, including a 1974 red Corvette Stingray and a 1928 Lincoln Limo, both in working order.
Shut down since Feb. 28, he said he’s willing to be patient before he reopens the taps, especially given that many of the people who visit are elderly, road-tripping tourists.
“I’ve got one customer that comes in here with one lung. Would I be able to look her family in the face if she got an infection traced back to here?” he said. “Not being open is bad for business. But killing your customers is really bad for business.”