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Hundreds of protesters gathered to demand New Mexico businesses be allowed to reopen


Hannah Grover   | Farmington Daily Times
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FARMINGTON — Shannon Carter and her family sat and talked on Mother’s Day about their frustrations over ongoing business restrictions that are causing high levels of unemployment and threatening to permanently shutter some businesses.

These restrictions were put in place to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but after two months of a crippled economy some San Juan County residents have had enough.

Carter’s family decided to protest the mandatory closure of businesses the state deemed as "non-essential." They created a Facebook group that night. But the Carters were not expecting the number of people who showed up at the mall May 14 with flags, signs and a lot of enthusiasm.

More than 500 protesters gathered in front of the Animas Valley Mall on a mild Thursday evening before sunset. Very few people wore masks and many of them exchanged hugs.

The protesters remained on one side of the sidewalk to remain in the public right of way. The mall's security had informed them they would not be permitted to protest on mall property, although they were allowed to park their cars in the mall parking lot.

The crowd stretched nearly a quarter mile, nearing Beckland Drive in the west and English Drive in the east.

The protest came the day after Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that San Juan County would enter what the state is dubbing the "preparation phase" of the reopening process. That meant non-essential retail businesses could begin curbside or delivery service and pet services like groomers could reopen. Golf courses can also reopen during the preparation phase.

Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said in an email that the majority of businesses in the state never shut down because they were deemed essential and retailers in the northwest region will be able to provide curbside and delivery services starting May 16.

"And if folks conduct themselves properly and safely to stem the spread of the virus, broader easings will be able to happen," she added.

MORE: COVID-19 in New Mexico: Some San Juan County businesses will be allowed to reopen Saturday

The majority of the state entered the preparation phase two weeks earlier and is now moving into the first phase of reopening.

However, the northwest region has been on a slower course due to high rates of COVID-19. McKinley and San Juan counties lead the state in numbers of coronavirus cases and more than 80 San Juan County residents have lost their lives.

Meyers Sackett pointed to the high number of cases and criticized the protest.

"A protest of that size in a community with as much COVID-19 transmission as Farmington will undoubtedly lead to more illness and possibly more deaths," she said. "That's extremely tragic. One of Farmington's zip codes has the second-most cases in the state by far, 356 — roughly as many cases as Santa Fe and Doña Ana counties combined, and those counties have 8 times the population of Farmington. A gathering like that is incredibly dangerous. People gathering recklessly will spread the virus and needlessly endanger themselves and others. 44% of people who are infected with COVID-19 receive the virus from someone who is asymptomatic, meaning they do not know they are sick."

The zip code she was referring to is the 87401 zip code.

'It shouldn’t all be shut down because of a virus'

Terry and Cindy Casaus helped direct traffic during the event and had spread the word about the protest via social media. They said it was never a highly organized protest. Instead, a post on social media sparked the crowds.

“We just put it out there that we’re getting together to show the governor that we are essential,” Terry Casaus said.

Cindy Casaus said people are losing their jobs because of the restrictions.

MORE: Latest coronavirus updates from San Juan County, Four Corners region

“We’re responsible enough adults that we can social distance and keep our businesses open,” she said.

Ruth Culpepper said she attended to protect her rights.

“I feel like it shouldn’t all be shut down because of a virus,” she said.

'Enough's enough'

Culpepper also opposes the public health order that goes into effect May 16 mandating New Mexicans to wear masks in public. Culpepper is in a low-risk group and said if she caught the virus she would likely survive.

“If I catch it, I brought it on myself,” she said.

MORE: So, now we have to wear face masks in public? Here's what to know about New Mexico's mandate

Peter Monette drew an analogy to Lujan Grisham symbolically “knocking down Trump’s wall” in an ad that went viral in 2019. In that ad, Lujan Grisham ran through a “wall” that had a portrait of President Donald Trump hanging on it.

“She needs to walk through this China virus wall so we can get back to work,” he said.

Ramie Harper said the governor’s orders have ruined sports, proms and graduations for children.

“Enough’s enough,” he said. “No more. We want to be out.”

Message from governor

When asked about what message the governor would like people who are frustrated with the ongoing health orders to know, Meyers Sackett said, "The message the governor has for individuals who are this upset with the state's actions to save lives is the same message she's delivered every day over and over since this crisis began: Stay home, wash your hands, wear a face-covering and protect yourself, your family and your neighbors. Anything less is to spit in the face of the health care workers and first responders who are risking and will continue to risk their lives every single day to protect New Mexicans, whether New Mexicans believe in this virus or not. "

Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at hgrover@daily-times.com.

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