Motel steps up to assist Sobering Center during the coronavirus pandemic

Hannah Grover
Farmington Daily Times

AZTEC — The Sobering Center plays a key role in addressing inebriation and addiction in the community, but the facility's setup also put the it at greater risk of having a coronavirus outbreak.

That prompted San Juan County and Farmington to search for an alternative location where some Sobering Center clients could be housed. San Juan County, Farmington, San Juan Regional Medical Center and Presbyterian Medical Services work together to provide the Sobering Center services.

A motel in south Farmington stepped up to help and, last week, opened its doors to clients from the Sobering Center who needed a place to stay.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Farmington, the owners of the Rimrock Lodge had reached out to the city about ways the motel in south Farmington could help people who might not have a place to stay overnight, according to Farmington Fire Chief David Burke.

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Sam Newell, one of the owners of the Rimrock, said they purchased the motel in December and hoped to transform it. He acknowledged in the past it had a reputation for drugs, prostitution and crime. But he said they worked to get those elements under control and are working to remodel the building, including a new paint job.

Rimrock Lodge is pictured, Monday, May 11, 2020, in Farmington.

"Our goal is to have it be one of the nicer, affordable hotels in Farmington," he said.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, those efforts were put on hold. Newell said the occupancy dropped to 8% and they were just hoping to not have to fire any employees.

Burke worked with San Juan County Emergency Manager Mike Mestas to identify a place for the homeless population to stay.

"What we are trying to do is maintain Sobering Center operations and facilitate an alternate location for the homeless and inebriate population to facilitate recovery and prevent transmission through the facility," Burke said.

A homeless shelter in McKinley County experienced the coronavirus spreading among its clients.

“We learned from their experience and identified that in order to keep the Sobering Center ... operational we needed to think outside of the box,” Burke said. "So Mike (Mestas) and I started communicating with the (New Mexico) Department of Health and later on Emergency Management and several other entities at the state level to help facilitate an alternative housing arrangement for this specific, very specific demographic."

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Rimrock Lodge is providing an alternative housing site to assist with Sobering Center operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

About three weeks into the pandemic, Newell said officials contacted the Rimrock Lodge. 

"We had been struggling for a few weeks," he said.

Newell said they viewed the opportunity to house people who may have tested positive for COVID-19 or who are awaiting test results as a win-win. In addition to helping the community, the Rimrock Lodge would receive money from the state to pay the nightly rate. 

He said the Rimrock Lodge is not forcing staff members to work if they feel uncomfortable serving COVID-19 patients. The rooms open directly outside and no staff members are entering the rooms. The employees who live on site have been moved to the opposite side of the facility and the state has provided personal protective equipment.

Once an agreement was in place with the state, the Rimrock Lodge was able to begin sheltering that demographic.

Burke explained that the Sobering Center will continue operations as it has for the past few years, but the agreement with Rimrock Lodge will allow them to house some of the clients in a place that reduces the likelihood of spread.

For example, if someone comes into the Sobering Center demonstrating flu-like symptoms, they will be referred to San Juan Regional Medical Center or another test site to be tested for coronavirus and then sent to the Rimrock Lodge to await the testing results.

The Rimrock Lodge will also provide a safe place for these people to quarantine if they catch the virus until they are deemed no longer contagious. Those who test positive for the virus will be screened and evaluated on a daily basis while at the motel.

Burke said the partnership with Rimrock is designed to facilitate ongoing operations of the Sobering Center during the pandemic by providing an alternative housing situation.

In preparation for the Rimrock Lodge opening to Sobering Center clientele, the New Mexico Department of Health tested the people at the Sobering Center to get a baseline measure.

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While Burke said he does not know what the future holds after the coronavirus pandemic has passed, he said the owners of the Rimrock Lodge have been great partners to work with, and he hopes the city can continue partnering with them and with other facilities interested in assisting with efforts to better serve the community in the future.

Newell was also optimistic future partnerships with the city. He said he would like to see a police substation open in the Rimrock Lodge.

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at

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