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Covid hits Gallup, N.M., hard; tribes seen as extra vulnerable

by The New York Times | December 28, 2020 at 3:00 a.m.

As the pandemic has steadily marched across the country in recent months, places like Gallup, N.M., have been among the hardest hit.

Perched between the Navajo Nation to the north and Zuni Nation to the south, almost half of Gallup's residents are American Indians, according to census data.

American Indian communities have been particularly vulnerable to the virus, at one point accounting for nearly 40% of all cases in New Mexico, even though those communities make up less than a tenth of the state's population. And some who have so far been spared by the virus are nonetheless reeling from the consequences of the economic slowdown.

Route 66 cuts through Gallup. The town has relied on tourism to help drive its economy, counting on visitors to shop at local galleries and trading posts selling American Indian art and crafts. But limits on activity in the area have made that hard.

When the region was experiencing an extreme wave of virus cases in May, the city locked down, and state police officers and the National Guard barricaded highway exits to prevent people who didn't live in Gallup from entering town unless it was an emergency.

Last month, long after the barricades came down, trading posts were open but closed for indoor shopping, limiting the chances of anyone passing by to stop and browse.

The iconic El Rancho hotel, where John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn and other Hollywood stars once stayed, was roughly a quarter full.

Bill Lee, the head of Gallup's Chamber of Commerce, said there has been a growing economic divide because of the restrictions put in place by local and state officials. Smaller businesses often have to operate with stricter guidelines, including rules preventing in-store shopping, while bigger box stores, especially those deemed essential, could operate with fewer limits. "The governor has chosen winners and losers," Lee said.

When the barricades were erected earlier this year, Walmart was inundated by shoppers stocking up on weeks' worth of supplies, especially because grocery stores on Indigenous lands are few and far between. The barricades, however, also had the effect of preventing members of tribal communities from coming into 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, the government program that provides health care to the 2.2 million members of the nation's tribal communities, had severe shortages of funding and supplies, in addition to a lack of doctors and aging facilities.

The virus made those weaknesses that much more apparent.

Amid the devastation of the pandemic, some people have gotten lucky. Dan Bonaguidi, the son of the town's mayor who owns Michele's Ready Mix Rock and Recycle with his wife, Michele, is one of them. His business has been thriving as government grants in the pandemic have led to greater demand for building materials for home renovations and projects like new or expanded health care facilities.

But even with bright spots, there are many more stories of businesses sitting empty or being shuttered -- small and large.

After an oil and natural gas boom in New Mexico and Texas in recent years, the pandemic has cut into oil demand and prices. Marathon Petroleum announced plans in August to shut down its operations in the area and lay off more than 200 workers -- roughly 1% of the city's population.

Operations like Marathon's are vital to Gallup's economy, and the job losses helped push the area's unemployment rate to 10.6% in October. Raul Sanchez is one of the workers who lost his job.

Sanchez, 39, said he'd worked at Marathon for 10 years. "No other jobs in this town pay as well," he said.

"It's going to have an effect on us," the city's mayor, Louis Bonaguidi, said earlier this year about the closing of the Marathon plant. "It's going to affect the housing market for sure. But it's going to affect all the businesses, too."

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