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New Mexico blocks roads into Gallup as virus cases surge

May 3, 2020 GMT
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state during a news conference in the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, Pool)
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state during a news conference in the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, Pool)
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham gives an update on the COVID-19 outbreak in the state during a news conference in the state Capitol in Santa Fe, N.M., Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Eddie Moore/The Albuquerque Journal via AP, Pool)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — 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.

She also required that businesses in Gallup close from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the city of about 20,000 people along Interstate 40, which remained open to through traffic.

Gallup is a hub for basic household supplies, liquor sales and water-container refills for people living in remote stretches of the Navajo Nation — often without full indoor plumbing — and indigenous Zuni Pueblo. The Navajo Nation has imposed evening and weekend curfews on the reservation spanning portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

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COVID-19 infection rates in Gallup and surrounding McKinley County make it one of the worst U.S. hotspots for the pandemic as patients overwhelm intensive care facilities.

Lujan Grisham said physical distancing was not being maintained. “A problem in one part of our state, with a virus this contagious, is a problem for our entire state,” she said.

Federal health officials also have linked the severity of the problem in Gallup to an early outbreak at a detox center that was followed by infections among homeless people and nursing homes.

Homeless residents who contracted COVID-19 were being offered temporary shelter at four motels at the expense of the state to isolate them and slow the spread of the virus, according to Ina Burmeister, a spokeswoman for Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services hospital.

“We can’t make them stay,” Burmeister said. “We’re trying to get them to stay until they’re cleared by physician as no longer infectious.”

State Sen. George Muñoz, D-Gallup, applauded the new restrictions. “Our numbers just keep shooting up” for infections, he said. “People were still coming in, standing on line with a mother with four children.”

Patrick Sandoval came to Gallup from Ganado on the Navajo Nation early Friday to stock up on items for his family and neighbors. He stood in line for 40 minutes to enter a Walmart and was surprised to find that entire sections were blocked off with signs in English and Navajo that put nonessential purchases off limits.

He said a longer lockdown with advanced notice might be more effective. “What they stopped for the weekend is only going to start Monday again,” he said.

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City officials requested new state of emergency under the riot act that can prohibit people from walking streets and using certain roads. Violations are punishable as misdemeanors on a first offense and as a felony on the second offense. Emergency declarations under the act expire after three days and can be renewed.

McKinley County has at least 1,064 confirmed cases of COVID-19, accounting for more than 30% of cases in New Mexico. It has far more infections than counties with major population centers such as Albuquerque, Rio Rancho or Las Cruces.

The steep climb in infections in the Gallup area has shown no sign of flattening, according to state health officials. The chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service in the Navajo area has said a new surge in infections is underway across the reservation.

In all, more than 3,500 cases have been reported in New Mexico, with more than 130 deaths.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The vast majority of people recover.

In other coronavirus developments:

—A pawn shop in the city of Grants has been notified of a possible $60,000 fine for remaining open in defiance of a statewide public health order that restricted nonessential business operations. The city has become a flashpoint of political conflict after Mayor Martin Hicks urged all businesses to reopen against the state governor’s orders and advice from tribal authorities at Acoma Pueblo.

—Lujan Grisham is laying the groundwork for social distancing requirements at polling places during the state’s June 2 election. Limits in a new health order range from as few as four voters to as much as 20% of occupancy limits. The current order does not apply to the general election in November.

— Workers who have been furloughed or laid off will not be able to continue their unemployment benefits without a valid and acceptable reason once they are called back to work by employers, officials said.

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Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca contributed to this report from Flagstaff, Arizona.

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This story was first published on May 1, 2020. It was updated on May 3, 2020 to correct the population of Gallup is around 20,000, not 70,000.