GALLUP, New Mexico — The governor of New Mexico invoked the state’s Riot Control Act on Friday as she sealed off all roads to non-essential traffic in the city of Gallup to help control a surging coronavirus outbreak in the former trading post city on the outskirts of the Navajo Nation.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham issued the order at noon Friday. She also announced a ban on routine outings and required that businesses close from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. in the city of about 70,000 people along Interstate 40.
Covid-19 infection rates in Gallup and surrounding McKinley County make it one of the worst U.S. hot spots for the pandemic as patients overwhelm intensive care facilities.
“The spread of this virus in McKinley County is frightful,” said Lujan Grisham, who added that the virus had run amok there and physical distancing is not being maintained among residents.
“A problem in one part of our state, with a virus this contagious, is a problem for our entire state,” she said.
New Mexico State Police will assist local law enforcement and the National Guard will participate in a non-law enforcement capacity, the governor’s office said.
Federal health officials have linked the severity of the problem in Gallup to an early outbreak at a detox center that was followed by infections among homeless people. Complaints about people flouting social distancing and face-mask requirements at Gallup stores are widespread.
The city requested that the governor declare a state of emergency under the riot act that can prohibit people from walking streets and using certain roads.
“I recognize this request is unusual and constitutes a drastic measure, and the emergency powers set out under the Riot Control Act should be invoked sparingly,” said Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi. “However, the Covid-19 outbreak in the city of Gallup is a crisis of the highest order. Immediate action is necessary.”
Violations are punishable as misdemeanors on a first offense and as a felony on the second offense.
Gallup is a hub for basic household supplies and liquor sales for people living in remote stretches of the Navajo Nation and indigenous Zuni Pueblo. The Navajo Nation has imposed evening and weekend curfews on the reservation spanning portions of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
McKinley County has at least 1,027 confirmed cases of COVID-19, accounting for more than 30% of cases in New Mexico. It has far more infections than counties with major population centers such as Albuquerque, Rio Rancho or Las Cruces.
The infection trend has shown no sign of flattening, according to state health officials.
In other coronavirus developments, employees in New Mexico who have been furloughed or laid off will not be able to continue their unemployment benefits without a valid and acceptable reason once they are called back to work by employers, officials said.
State Department of Workforce Solutions Secretary Bill McCamley said furloughed employees who are called back by their employers must provide “good cause” for not returning to work and continuing to receive unemployment benefits, the Albuquerque Journal reported.
The announcement came as the state has started to reduce restrictions on shuttered business amid the coronavirus pandemic.