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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham enacted the state's Riot Control Act in a bid to stop the spread of the coronavirus. Las Cruces Sun-News

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GALLUP — This border town community in the northwest part of New Mexico is where radio stations play classic rock and country western. They broadcast high school basketball games in the Navajo language.

It's a place where Interstate 40 is never without a semi-trailer truck passing by and where U.S. Route 66 is still used to drive from east to west — or vice versa.

Travel to Gallup by family groups and individuals is usually normal behavior near the start of a month, but not now. An outbreak of the coronavirus caused city officials this week to request a state of emergency from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham and a weekend shutdown of most travel and commerce.

A large portion of Gallup's economy is sustained by tax revenue generated from the Navajo people, who travel from communities across the reservation to buy supplies ranging from groceries to hay for livestock. The action commonly happens during the first two weeks of the month when financial assistance checks arrive from state and federal programs.

It's not unusual to see amá sání – the Navajo word for maternal grandmother – and acheii – maternal grandfather in the Navajo language – pushing shopping carts down aisles inside Walmart.

Read more: New Mexico blocks roads into Gallup as coronavirus cases surge

With reports circulating that entire families continue to enter Gallup and shop for supplies, the concern over individuals bringing the virus to the city or leaving with the virus is a reason the lockdown was authorized on May 1 by Lujan Grisham.

It went into effect at noon on May 1 and ends at noon on May 4.

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An unprecedented shutdown

McKinley County, where Gallup is located, leads New Mexico in positive cases for COVID-19. 

Figures from the New Mexico Department of Health on May 2 show 1,116 total cases with 20 deaths for the county. For the two zip codes assigned to Gallup, the health department reports 373 total cases.

To protect the public and to reduce community spread of the new virus, state and city officials took the unprecedented move to clamp down on movement in and to the city.

The latest: Here are the latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

Louis Bonaguidi was sworn-in as mayor of Gallup on April 30. He, along with former Mayor Jackie McKinney, asked Lujan Grisham to declare the state of emergency and use the emergency powers under the state's Riot Control Act to address the situation.

"The problem we're having is people are just not taking it seriously, in my mind," Bonaguidi said in an interview on May 2 at his home.

"You see people at Walmart shopping with no masks. Kids are running around. We're not taking it serious enough and this will definitely get everybody's attention," he said.

The population in Gallup doubles during the first two weeks of the month when many enter town to shop.

The interaction between large groups and the potential for more people to test positive for COVID-19 worries Bonaguidi.

"We've got to stop that cycle. That's the reason we picked this time," he said adding the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni agreed with the lockdown.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez issued support for Lujan Grisham's decision in a press release from the governor's office.

"We fully support the proactive measures implemented by Gov. Lujan Grisham, at the request of the city of Gallup. 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," Nez said.

Health care agencies on the Navajo Nation, including Indian Health Service, report more than 2,000 individuals who reside on the tribal land have tested positive for COVID-19. The death toll is 73 as of May 1.

The executive order signed by the governor calls on residents in Gallup to stay at home, unless movement is an emergency and related to health, safety or welfare.

All businesses must close from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. for the duration of the lockdown.

The New Mexico State Police, with assistance by the Army National Guard, are operating checkpoints on highways to Gallup and on exits from Interstate 40.

Gallup Police Capt. Erin Toadlena-Pablo, who serves as the department's spokeswoman, said officers are assisting the state police when needed and have increased patrolling streets inside the city.

Still, vehicles were seen moving about the city Saturday morning and more so as the day proceeded. It is unknown whether motorists are residents.

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In neighborhoods, residents were out walking, jogging or completing household chores. When approached for comment, all declined to comment about the lockdown.

Bonaguidi said among the telephone calls and emails he has received, about 90% are in favor of the lockdown while 10% have stated opposition, including comments about the need to shop for essential items.

"The point is, whether it's a right thing or a wrong thing to do, we had to do something. This epidemic is more dangerous," he said.

The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission issued a press release on May 1, stating concern over Navajos being mistreated or being racially profiled by law enforcement.

Keep reading: Navajo Nation Legislative Branch offices close, undergo cleaning over coronavirus concern

The commission is urging tribal members to report incidents of mistreatment when entering or leaving Gallup.

"It is important for Navajo citizens to report any mistreatment to the commission. Just because of COVID-19 and Gallup, lockdown does not permit a police officer to mistreat citizens," the release states.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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