GALLUP, N.M. – Like clockwork, payday arrives and tens of thousands of people from the Navajo reservation and other rural stretches along the New Mexico-Arizona border flood into Gallup, a freewheeling desert oasis of just 22,000 that can quickly quadruple in size with all the visitors.
As the modern-day trading post reels under a coronavirus outbreak that has infected more than 1,450 people and killed at least three dozen in the city and surrounding rural county — overrunning a patchwork health care system — Gallup has gone into extreme lockdown. Barricades are manned by state police and the National Guard, keeping out anyone who doesn’t live there or face an emergency.
That has sent thousands of people scrambling for options other than the city’s coin-operated bulk water station and monthly shopping runs to Walmart and Tractor Supply Co. Up to one-third of homes on remote stretches of the Navajo Nation lack full plumbing, and grocery stores are mostly tiny and limited.
The roads into Gallup may open up Friday evening, but the rules allowing only essential shopping will remain, and the reservation has its own lockdown that prevents people from leaving on evenings and weekends. Navajo police patrol for people breaking the rules.
On Thursday, hundreds of cars idled at a roadblock in hopes of entering town, just before the lockdown was extended for three more days under the state Riot Control Act.
The effectiveness of the lockdown, enacted by the governor and endorsed by Gallup’s fledgling mayor, is up for debate. Infections are still mounting in town, with about 240 confirmed cases within one ZIP code, and more than 2,650 across the Navajo Nation that extends into portions of Arizona and Utah. If the Navajo Nation were its own state, it’d have the second highest per capita rate of positive coronavirus cases in the country, behind only New York.
The dividing line traced by roadblocks also is tugging on sensitivities about birthrights and inequities, as Native American visitors worry about the social stigma of being locked out because of the contagion.
The outbreak on the huge Navajo reservation, the nation’s largest with 175,000 people, has made people in Gallup nervous. Many see hints of the racism that has divided people in the town for centuries.
“They targeted the people around here. They’re going to be coming to Gallup to shop, so they put a stop to that,” said Johnnie Henry, adding that two of his relatives from the Navajo Nation were apparently infected with COVID-19 while working at a Gallup hospital. “We kind of look at each other and say, are we the ones bringing it? No, it’s all over.
“There’s a lot of people who want to go back into Gallup, but they’re afraid that they’re going to call us names ... say that we are the carriers,” Henry said.
In Gallup, the streets are empty, with downtown thoroughfares largely free of cars. The lockdown idled pawn shops, halted informal jewelry sales by walking vendors, and thinned out crowds at grocery stores and Walmart.
“The lockdown has been awesome, you don’t have to worry about any crowds,” Andrew Sandoval, a delivery worker for Home Depot, said as he ducked into a grocery store to buy his wife a cup of coffee.
At Gallup’s main hospital, Rehoboth McKinley Christian, the battle against the virus has taken a toll, with 32 infections among employees. The hospital’s sole pulmonologist left Wednesday without a replacement, and patients with serious respiratory conditions are being flown to Albuquerque, Chief Medical Officer Val Wangler said.
For most, the 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 trajectory of the pandemic could hinge on Gallup’s homeless population — many who left the Navajo Nation and struggle with alcoholism.
Infections raced through a detox center in early April. Now, free room and board are offered at four local motels — including the famous El Rancho hotel visited by legendary actor John Wayne and President Ronald Reagan — to about 140 homeless patients who are quarantined. They are tested repeatedly before being cleared with a certification card that can let them back into shelters.
Beyond Gallup, New Mexico’s stay-at-home restrictions expire May 15, and there’s uncertainty about what’s next.
“I’m so confused. What is going to really work if this doesn’t?” state Sen. George Munoz of Gallup said of the community lockdown. He has taken to buying giant pallets of bottled water for indigenous communities with campaign funds. “I don’t know the answer.”
At a motel, Dr. Caleb Lauber opens a conversation with a coronavirus-positive patient in the Navajo language before administering a nasal swab test to see if the infection persists.
“There’s more than one benefit from doing this,” he said. “It allows us the opportunity to ensure that the community is protected.”
But the program is financially unsustainable, Lauber said.
South of Gallup in Zuni Pueblo, a tribal community of 800 residents set amid red rock mesas, Lt. Gov. Carleton Bowekaty supports extending the Gallup lockdown, noting that it keeps more pueblo members safely at home. He said the tribe has stockpiled food and water to help support members who have to quarantine after being exposed to the virus.
He said a COVID-19 outbreak in the pueblo is far from contained, with about 55 confirmed infections and two deaths amid intensive testing, evening curfews and a daytime roadblock aimed at discouraging nonessential travel.
An end to the Gallup lockdown would likely mean stricter restrictions in the pueblo, where Bowekaty says tribal members are struggling with social distancing in ceremonial life, including burials.
Thoughts have turned to preserving oral traditions that might be lost with more coronavirus casualties.
“How do we capture their knowledge if they pass on?” he asked.
Associated Press data editor Meghan Hoyer contributed to this report.
This story has corrected the spelling of President Ronald Reagan’s last name.