Showdown in New Mexico? State (and pueblo) versus a small town

Mayor Martin Hicks speaking to a reporter about reopening the small city of Grants, N.M., in in defiance of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's order that's keeping nonessential businesses closed. (KOAT-TV via AP)

The Associated Press

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo urged the state to take any measures necessary to prevent nonessential businesses in Grants from reopening

Russell Contreras

Associated Press

RIO RANCHO, N.M. (AP) — The mayor of a small New Mexico city is promising a confrontation Monday between his small police force and State Police as he seeks to lift a COVID-19 lockdown order that shuttered nonessential businesses to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Grants Mayor Martin "Modey" Hicks vowed last week that he would allow all small businesses to reopen in defiance of the governor's order to keep them closed during the health emergency. The move comes as some rural communities across the country are pressuring their state and local officials to allow them to reopen their towns amid rising unemployment and economic turmoil.

In the small western New Mexico town of around 9,000 people, the mayor there said the time had come to get rid of the lockdown and reopen businesses despite warnings from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that such a move could put people at risk.

"There will be a confrontation down here. I guarantee you there," Hicks told The Associated Press late Friday. "I've ordered the police to stop any State Police officer who comes into town and tries to shut them down."

Under a health order issued late March, state officials told all nonessential businesses to close their doors. First-time lockdown offenders can be given warnings, second citations for the same offenders are petty misdemeanors with a fine of up to $100, and third-time violators can be fined up to $5,000.

Lujan Grisham said the mayor's plan makes "absolutely no sense whatsoever" and warned that State Police would be ready to enforce the health order.

"This notion that you don't have to comply is wrong. That you can just open up businesses and not worry about public health issues is really quite frankly tantamount to opening up a public pool and having a pee section," Lujan Grisham said at a news conference Friday.

The nearby Acoma Pueblo also pushed back against the Grants plan to allow the reopening of nonessential businesses.

Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo urged the governor of New Mexico to take any measures necessary to prevent nonessential businesses in Grants from reopening before the state's social distancing directives expire.

"I am extremely concerned that opening now is too soon and will create a very risky situation for my pueblo and will hamper our efforts to keep our community safe and protected," Vallo said in a letter.

According to the New Mexico Department of Health, Native Americans make up around 47 percent of all the state's known COVID-19 cases, though they are only 10 percent of the state's population.

New Mexico now has at least 2,726 coronavirus cases with 99 known dead, health officials said Sunday.

Grants is in Cibola County, which is next to McKinley County — an area that includes part of the Navajo Nation. McKinley County leads the state in confirmed coronavirus cases. 

Grant, once a booming city connected to logging, Route 66 tourism and uranium mining, is around an hour's drive from Albuquerque.