December 27, 2020
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, according to a New York Times database, the highest number of cases per capita in any subway area were in the United States.
With the pandemic marching steadily across the country in recent months, places like Gallup have been hardest hit.
According to census data, nearly half of Gallup’s residents are between the Navajo Nation in the north and the Zuni Nation in the south.
Native American communities were particularly vulnerable to the virus, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all cases in New Mexico at one point, although these communities make up less than a tenth of the state’s population. And some who have so far been spared the virus are still affected by the consequences of the economic slowdown.
Eric-Paul Riege, a 26-year-old artist, is the son of a veteran hotel manager and a Navajo mother who taught him the art of weaving. His work has been published in galleries and collections across the country. But paid projects almost dried up this year.
When I met Mr. Riege, he was working shifts at a restaurant called Grandpa’s Grill, processing orders for take-away groceries.
Route 66 runs through Gallup. The city has relied on tourism to fuel its economy. She expects visitors to shop and sell trading posts in local galleries that sell Native American arts and crafts. But the limits of activity in the region made that difficult.
When the region saw an extreme wave of virus cases in May, the city was on lockdown and state police and the National Guard barricaded highway exits to prevent people who did not live in Gallup from entering the city unless they did so an emergency.
Last month, long after the barricades fell, trading posts were open for indoor shopping but closed, reducing the chances of anyone stopping and browsing.
The legendary El Rancho Hotel, where John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and other Hollywood stars once lived, was about a quarter full.
Gallup is in many ways a relic of conquered indigenous lands and American expansion. For example, many of the trading posts are owned and operated by whites. These little shops are overshadowed by McDonald’s, Walmart, and other large American franchises where cars and people often end up in parking lots these days.
Bill Lee, head 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 often have to adhere to stricter guidelines, including rules that prevent in-store shopping, while larger stores, especially those deemed essential, can operate with fewer restrictions. “The governor picked winners and losers,” Mr. Lee told me.
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When the barricades were erected earlier this year, Walmart was inundated with shoppers stocking up on weeks of supplies, especially as there are few grocery stores in indigenous lands. However, the barricades also had the effect of preventing members of Indian groups from coming into town to shop.
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 medical care to the country’s 2.2 million members of the country’s tribal communities, faced a significant shortage of funding and care in addition to a lack of doctors and aging facilities.
The virus made these weaknesses all the more evident.
Amid the devastation of the pandemic, some people have gotten lucky. Dan Bonaguidi, the son of the city’s mayor who owns Michelle’s Ready Mix Rock and Recycle with his wife Michele, is one of them. Its business flourished as government grants resulted in greater demand for building materials for home renovations and projects such as new or expanded healthcare facilities during the pandemic.
But even with Lichtblicke there are many more stories of companies that are empty or closed – small and large.
After an oil and natural gas boom in New Mexico and Texas in recent years, the pandemic has lowered oil demand and prices. Marathon Petroleum announced plans in August to cease operations in the area and lay off more than 200 workers – roughly 1 percent of the city’s population.
Operations like marathons are vital to Gallup’s economy, and job losses contributed to the region’s unemployment rate rising to 10.6 percent in October. Raul Sanchez is one of the workers who lost his job.
One afternoon, two days before Thanksgiving, as I was driving past his house on the hill overlooking the western part of town, Mr. Sanchez was working on a red pickup truck. He had worked at Marathon for 10 years. “No other jobs in this city are paying off,” said 39-year-old Sanchez.
“It will have an impact on us,” said the city’s mayor, Louis Bonaguidi, earlier this year about the closure of the marathon plant. “It will surely affect the real estate market. But it will also affect all companies. “
As I drove through Gallup the day before Thanksgiving, the last few minutes of sun lit the rails of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad. Despite the fighting in the city, I could still feel a pride in the community as I drove around.
But the feeling of vulnerability was just as evident. Even before the pandemic, more than a quarter of the city’s residents were living in poverty, and that number has increased this year.
Shortly after my visit to Rehoboth Medical Center, I watched a group of Navajo men lower a bronze-colored coffin into a grave in a cemetery 50 miles north of Gallup. It wasn’t the only virus-related funeral scheduled there this week.
Production by Renee Melides