As the first wave of COVID-19 hits communities during primary season, states are still resolving how to hold elections in the middle of a pandemic. Voter advocates and organizers see the primaries as a test run, with many assuming that the November general election will also need to adapt to COVID-19. Since April, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield, a virologist, and epidemiologists have predicted that another, potentially worse, wave of the virus will hit communities this fall and winter. Universal vote-by-mail is being promoted by secretaries of State and voter advocates alike as a clear solution to balancing voter access and public health concerns. In this area, the West leads the way.
ProPublica is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative newsroom. Sign up for The Big Story newsletter to receive stories like this one in your inbox.A few days after Easter, the Police Department in Lubbock, Texas, received a call from a concerned employee of a car dealership on the southwest side of the West Texas town.Management had continued to flout safety orders imposed by Gov. Greg Abbott, part of an effort to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the employee who said he was about to self-quarantine after coming into contact with personal protective equipment a customer had left in a traded-in vehicle.It was the fifth time the city had received a complaint about the McGavock Nissan dealership in less than three weeks. The fire marshal’s office dispatched an inspector who confirmed that the dealership was not enforcing social distancing guidelines or sanitizing cars between test drives. But the inspector issued no citation, instead passing along the information to “city hall for directive.”The next day, on the opposite end of the sprawling state, police in the border town of Laredo were alerted to social media posts from two women, one doing nails and the other eyelash extensions, from their homes in violation of Abbott’s orders. Neither was a licensed cosmetologist.Instead of issuing warnings or urging them to comply, as happened in Lubbock, Laredo police launched an undercover sting to catch the two women, resulting in their arrests.As Texas now reopens at Abbott’s direction, under a much looser set of restrictions, a ProPublica-Texas Tribune analysis of complaint data in a dozen cities shows these disparate approaches to enforcement — particularly among businesses — were incredibly common across the state.Cities and counties arrived at dramatically different interpretations of Abbott’s emergency orders.
While Navajo people represent the worst hit by COVID-19 in absolute numbers — Navajos represent 45% of all New Mexico’s positive cases – two Pueblo communities are being hit harder, by percentage of their population, according to data provided by state health officials.
About 11% of Zia Pueblo and 4% of San Felipe members have contracted the virus compared to about 2% of Navajo Nation members who live in New Mexico. The New Mexico Department of Health provided New Mexico In Depth a detailed breakdown of the number of positive cases by tribal affiliation through Monday. Those numbers show that the great majority of tribes in the state have cases of COVID-19. The New Mexico Department of Health provided this chart to New Mexico In Depth on Monday, May 11, showing the tribal affiliation of Native American people in New Mexico who have contracted COVID-19 through Monday. Navajo people represented 2,194 of the state’s 5,069 cases on Monday. Reported separately were non-contiguous Navajo chapters.
Half of the 200 people who had died as of yesterday in New Mexico from COVID-19 were Native Americans, a jarring number for a population that makes up 11% of the state’s population.It’s another grim statistic for the state’s 23 tribes who have borne the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic in New Mexico. Nearly 60% of people identified to date through testing as infected with the virus are indigenous. Data about those who’ve died, provided to New Mexico In Depth by the New Mexico Department of Health, came in advance of Monday’s daily update from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s office. That update included eight additional deaths, pushing the state’s death total to 208, four of which occurred in hard-hit McKinley County, where Native Americans make up almost 80% of the population.
The 100 deaths attributed to Native Americans in New Mexico likely include Navajo people living in the state as well as Native Americans from the state’s more than 20 other tribes.
Meanwhile, deaths attributed to white people in New Mexico–30%–exceed the 14% of identified positive cases attributed to that group, but still fall below their representation in the population as a whole.
A chart from the April 28 report of the NM COVID-19 modeling group shows the disproportionate concentration of COVID-19 cases in the northwest part of New Mexico. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham took baby-steps to reopen New Mexico’s economy Thursday, allowing non-essential retailers to provide curbside and by-appointment services, opening golf courses and making state parks available for day use starting Friday.
But the new order sidesteps the state’s epicenter of COVID-19 — New Mexico’s northwest corner. Earlier in the day Thursday, the mayor of Gallup sent a letter pleading with the governor to declare a state of emergency in the city, which accounts for just 3.5% of New Mexico’s population but 30% of the state’s COVID-19 cases.
“Our community is unable to adequately address the outbreak without the imposition of certain restrictions necessary to regulate social distancing, public gatherings, sales of goods, and the use of public streets,” Mayor Jackie McKinney wrote. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez “fully supports the request and is hopeful that it will help to prevent Navajo people from traveling to the border town,” said a daily press release from his office.
Indeed, a New Mexico COVID-19 modeling report available on the Department of Health website, dated Tuesday, notes the “NW region has the highest growth rate; week-over-week improvement is leveling off indicating additional actions are critical.”
The new public order announcing some loosening of the economic shutdown across the state specifically excludes McKinley, San Juan and Cibola counties. And, the governor said Thursday those counties would likely see more restrictions. She did not give details, but said they were being worked on. During Thursday’s update Lujan Grisham announced a Navajo Nation Rapid Response Team, an acknowledgement of the severity of the situation.
Members of a New Mexico rapid response team focused on the Navajo Nation, listed in a slide during Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s April 30 press conference.
New Mexico In Depth welcomes reporter Shaun Griswold to our team beginning next week. Shaun is Pueblo from Laguna, Jemez and Zuni, and grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup.
He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience to our team. He’s covered Rocky Mountain fire seasons, local police reform, and, as he is sure to note, the Denver Broncos and Kendrick Lamar.
We’re thrilled by the opportunity to work with Shaun, thanks to Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities through its reporting corps. Report for America is an initiative of the nonprofit news organization, The GroundTruth Project. He joins 225 reporters placed by the program in 162 newsrooms around the country, from a pool of more than 1,800 applicants.
For New Mexico In Depth, Shaun will focus on issues important to urban Indigenous people in Albuquerque, as well as tribal communities throughout New Mexico, including education, child welfare, and more.
“I’m excited to join the ranks of Indigenous journalists at Indian Country Today, Navajo Times, High Country News and every publication focused on expanding news for thriving Indigenous communities that demand coverage,” he says about this opportunity.
Native Americans compose 11% of the New Mexico state population, and Albuquerque is home to one of the largest communities of urban Indian people in the country.
Zia Pueblo erected barricades and a checkpoint at the entrance to their community. (Trip Jennings/New Mexico In Depth)
Native Americans make up almost 37% of the positive COVID-19 cases in New Mexico, more than three times their representation in the state’s population. That’s according to a new data dashboard the state Department of Health unveiled today.
Native Americans represent around 11% of the state’s 2 million residents. In comparison, Anglos, who make up 37 percent of New Mexico’s population, represent just under 24% of the state’s positive cases. And Hispanics, 49% of the population, represent just 27% of the positive cases.
Also disproportionately affected, but by a much smaller margin, are African Americans, who make up 2.6% of the statewide population, but 3.1% of COVID-19 cases.
The COVID-19 pandemic rapidly upended the lives of New Mexicans in the past month. And if a majority of the state’s county clerks get their way, their primary election will be upended as well, with widespread voting by mail rather than traditional voting at polling sites.
The pandemic, which has swept the globe and so far led to more than 20,000 American deaths, is picking up speed in New Mexico.
Over the past month, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham through a series of emergency executive orders has largely closed down the state’s economy and ordered New Mexicans to stay home. Public health officials project that the number of illnesses in New Mexico will peak in mid to late May. No New Mexico public officials to date predict when the measures mandating New Mexicans stay home and congregate in groups no more than five will be lifted.
A majority of county clerks (27 of the 33 clerks statewide) want to mail ballots directly to registered voters, rather than endanger the health of election workers and voters by holding a statewide election with more than 700 polling sites on June 2. Secretary of State Maggie Toulouse Oliver supports the idea.
But the state Republican party, along with 31 Republican lawmakers and six county clerks, say a better option to directly mailing ballots to voters would be to promote widespread use of absentee voting, a two-step process available to all New Mexico voters, so that there are many fewer people showing up to the polls in person.
In the middle is the state Supreme Court, which will hear arguments for and against a petition by the county clerks Tuesday.
Editor’s note: Shortly after we posted this analysis, on April 12, New Mexico updated its positive case count to 1,245, which would make this percentage 29%. We will update this again when the Navajo Nation updates its case count, later today or tomorrow. This percentage will most likely fluctuate every day but is, at this point, still nearly three times the percentage of the Native American population in New Mexico. At least 31% of New Mexicans who’ve contracted COVID-19 are Native American, according to New Mexico In Depth calculations from publicly available data. That’s almost three times their percentage of the state population as a whole.
The governor’s office said Wednesday the state of New Mexico is helping Pueblo tribes erect roadblocks to keep non-tribal members off reservations, as outbreaks of COVID-19 have begun to spread through at least three of the communities — and expectations are for the virus to impact others. New Mexico is home to 19 Pueblo tribes, with populations ranging from a couple hundred to 10,000 people.
The governor will “go to any length to keep these areas closed if that’s what needs to be done. The state is exploring all mechanisms,” Nora Sackett wrote in an email today. Sackett is Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s press secretary. Yesterday, the office of Lujan Grisham confirmed 31 cases in Zia Pueblo and 52 cases in San Felipe Pueblo, both in Sandoval County.