Life in the town most affected by the coronavirus in the United States

The coronavirus hit Gallup, a small New Mexico town located near Native American reservations, which is now one of the hardest hit places in the country.

The spread of the virus affected the local economy, which over the years developed around tourism, rail, and heavy industry.

Store owners, residents, and aid workers try to find ways to get ahead.

December 30, 2020


Gallup hospitals are almost full. Most of the stores are empty. The unemployment rate in the county where that city is located is one and a half times the national average. Earlier this month, it had more cases per capita than any other metropolitan area in the United States, according to a New York Times database.

As the pandemic has spread across the country in recent months, places like Gallup have become the worst hit towns.

Native American communities have been especially vulnerable to the virus, in fact, at one point accounting for nearly 40 percent of all cases in New Mexico, despite the fact that those communities make up less than a tenth of the state’s population. . And some of those who have so far emerged unscathed from the virus have still been hurt by the consequences of the economic slowdown.

Eric-Paul Riege, a 26-year-old artist, is the son of a war veteran and hotel manager and a Navajo mother who taught him the art of weaving. His works have been exhibited in galleries and collections throughout the United States. But this year, paid projects practically disappeared.

When I met Riege, he was working at a restaurant called Grandpa’s Grill, preparing take out orders.

Route 66 goes through Gallup. The town has used tourism to help boost its economy, counting on visitors to shop at local galleries and commercial establishments that sell Native American crafts. However, restrictions imposed in the area have made such activities difficult.

When the region experienced an intense wave of virus cases in May, the city went into lockdown, and officials from the state police and the National Guard they barricaded the exits of the freeway to prevent people who did not live in Gallup from entering the town, unless it was an emergency.

Last month, long after the barricades were removed, commercial establishments were opened, but indoor shopping was not allowed, limiting the chances that someone would walk by and stop to browse.

He iconic El Rancho hotel, where Hollywood stars such as John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn, among others, once stayed, operated at about a quarter of its capacity.

In many respects, Gallup is a relic of conquered Indian lands and American expansion. Many of the commercial establishments, for example, are owned by white people, who also run them. Those small stores are in the shadow of McDonald’s, Walmart and other large American franchises, where cars and people often crowd the parking lots.

Bill Lee, the director of the Gallup Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a growing economic divide due to restrictions imposed by local and state officials. Smaller businesses generally have to operate under stricter rules, such as rules prohibiting indoor shopping, while department stores, especially those deemed essential, can operate with fewer constraints. “The governor has chosen the winners and the losers,” Lee said.

When the freeway was blocked this year, Walmart was flooded with shoppers wanting to stock up on supplies for the weeks of quarantine, especially since grocery stores on Indian land are rare. However, the barricades also prevented members of Native American peoples from entering the town to shop.

Indigenous groups in the area have long suffered from a lack of information and resources.

Even before the pandemic, the Indian Health Service (IHS), the government program that provides health care to the nation’s 2.2 million native communities, was already suffering from severe shortages. funding and supplies, plus a lack of outdated doctors and facilities.

The virus made those deficiencies more apparent.

Amid the devastation of the pandemic, some people have been fortunate. One of them is Dan Bonaguidi, the son of the town mayor, who, along with his wife, Michele, owns the Michele’s Ready Mix Rock and Recycle ready-mix and recycled concrete factory. His business has thrived as government grants have created increased demand for building materials for home renovations and projects like new health centers or expansions of those institutions.

However, although there are some success stories, there are many more those of businesses, large and small, that were left empty or had to close.

Following an oil and natural gas boom in New Mexico and Texas in recent years, the pandemic has lowered oil demand and prices. In August, Marathon Petroleum Corporation announced plans to shut down its operations in the area and lay off more than 200 workers, about one percent of the city’s population.

The operations of companies like Marathon are vital to Gallup’s economy, and job losses contributed to an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent in the area in October. Raúl Sánchez is one of the workers who lost his job.

When I drove past his house on a hill overlooking the western part of town on a recent afternoon two days before Thanksgiving, Sánchez was repairing a red truck. He had worked at Marathon for ten years. “No other job pays so well in this town,” said Sánchez, 39.

“It’s going to affect us all,” declared the city’s mayor, Louis Bonaguidi, earlier this year of the Marathon plant closure. “It will certainly affect the real estate market. But it is also going to affect all businesses ”.

When I drove through Gallup the day before Thanksgiving, the last few minutes of sunshine lit up the railroad tracks. Despite the difficulties of the town, he could still sense a sense of pride in the community as he drove around.

But the feeling of vulnerability was just as apparent. Even before the pandemic broke out, more than a quarter of the city’s residents they lived in poverty, and those numbers have skyrocketed this year.

Shortly after my visit to the Rehoboth Medical Center, I saw a group of Navajo men lowering a bronze coffin onto a grave in a cemetery 50 miles north of Gallup. It wasn’t the only virus-related funeral scheduled for that week.

Production by Renee Melides

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