SANTA FE, N.M. — The governor of New Mexico invoked the state’s Riot Control Act on Friday as she sealed off all roads to nonessential 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.

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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invoked the state’s Riot Control Act on Friday as she sealed off all roads to nonessential 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. Morgan Lee/Associated Press

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham also 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. hotspots for the pandemic as patients overwhelm intensive care facilities.

Lujan Grisham said the virus has run amok in McKinley County 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.

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.

Homeless residents of Gallup who contracted COVID-19 were being offered temporary shelter at four motels at the expense of the state to isolate them and slow the spread of the virus, according to Ina Burmeister, a spokeswoman for Rehoboth McKinley Christian Health Care Services hospital. The facility is providing toiletries and basic clothing such as socks and underwear.

“We can’t make them stay,” Burmeister said. “We’re trying to get them to stay until they’re cleared by physician as no longer infectious.”

Complaints are widespread about people flouting social distancing and face-mask requirements at Gallup stores.

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. Violations are punishable as misdemeanors on a first offense and as a felony on the second offense.

The riot act gives the governor the power to prohibit people from walking the streets, carrying firearms, assembling in public and purchasing alcohol. Emergency declarations under the act expire after three days.

Gallup is a hub for basic household supplies, liquor sales and water-container refills for people living in remote stretches of the Navajo Nation — often without full indoor plumbing — 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 percent 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 steep climb in infections in the Gallup area has shown no sign of flattening, according to state health officials. The chief medical officer for the Indian Health Service in the Navajo area has said a new surge in infections is underway across the reservation that could peak in mid-May.


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