Travel News

The place most affected by the virus

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

While the pandemic has swept across the country steadily in recent months, places like Gallup have been among the hardest hit.

PictureThe Lions Club rodeo was held every June at Red Rock Park.  It was canceled this year.

Perched between the Navajo Nation to the north and the Zuni Nation to the south, nearly half of Gallup’s residents are Native Americans, according to census data.

Native American communities have been particularly vulnerable to the virus, accounting for nearly 40% of all cases in New Mexico at one point, even though these communities represent less than a tenth of the state’s population. And some who have so far been spared the virus are nonetheless reeling from the consequences of the economic downturn.

Eric-Paul Riege, a 26-year-old artist, is the son of a veteran and hotel manager and a Navajo mother who taught him the art of weaving. Her work has appeared in galleries and collections across the country. But the projects paid for this year have almost dried up.

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

Route 66 passes through Gallup. The city has relied on tourism to boost its economy, relying on visitors to shop at local galleries and counters selling Native American arts and crafts. But the limits of activity in the region made this difficult.

As the region experienced an extreme wave of virus cases in May, the city was locked down and state police and National Guard agents barricaded highway exits to prevent people who were not living for Gallup to enter town unless it was an emergency.

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

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

Gallup is in many ways a relic of conquered Indigenous lands and American expansion. Many trading posts, for example, are owned and operated by whites. These little stores lie in the shadow of McDonald’s, Walmart, and other big American franchises, where cars and people often overflow parking lots now.

Bill Lee, the head of the Gallup Chamber of Commerce, said there was a growing economic divide due to restrictions put in place by local and state officials. Small businesses often have to operate with more stringent guidelines, including rules preventing in-store purchases, while large outlets, especially those deemed essential, might operate with fewer limits. “The governor picked the winners and the losers,” Mr. Lee told me.

When the barricades were put up earlier this year, Walmart was inundated with shoppers stocking up for weeks, mostly because grocery stores on native lands are scarce. The barricades, however, also had the effect of preventing members of Native American groups from shopping in the city.

Indigenous groups in the region 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 2.2 million members of the country’s tribal communities, had severe shortages in funding and supplies, in addition to a lack of aging physicians and facilities.

The virus has made these weaknesses even more apparent.

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

But even with bright spots, there are a lot more stories of empty or closed businesses – big and small.

After an oil and natural gas boom in New Mexico and Texas in recent years, the pandemic has reduced demand and prices for oil. Marathon Petroleum announced in August plans to shut down operations in the area and lay off more than 200 workers – about 1% of the city’s population.

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

As I walked past his home on a hill overlooking the western part of town one afternoon two days before Thanksgiving, Mr. Sanchez was tinkering with a red pickup truck. He had worked at Marathon for 10 years. “No other job in this city pays so much,” said Sanchez, 39.

“It’s going to have an effect on us,” city mayor Louis Bonaguidi said earlier this year of the closure of the Marathon plant. “It will definitely affect the housing market. But it will also affect all businesses. “

When I walked through Gallup the day before Thanksgiving, the last few minutes of sunlight lit up the tracks of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Despite the city’s hardships, I could still feel a sense of pride in the community as I drove.

But the sense of vulnerability was just as apparent. Even before the outbreak of the pandemic, more than a quarter of the city’s residents lived in poverty, and those numbers have increased this year.

Shortly after my visit to Rehoboth Medical Center, I saw a group of Navajo men lower a bronze-colored casket into a grave in a cemetery 50 miles north of Gallup. It wasn’t the only virus-related funeral planned that week.

Production by Renee Melides

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