The mayor of a small New Mexico city and several dozen supporters rallied Monday as he encouraged business owners in his community to defy the governor's lockdown order that shuttered nonessential shops to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Grants Mayor Martin "Modey" Hicks vowed in defiance last week to allow all small businesses to reopen.
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 western New Mexico town of around 9,000 people, the mayor said the time had come to get rid of the shutdown and reopen businesses despite warnings from Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham that such a move could put people at risk.
He said only a fraction of New Mexicans have been infected by COVID-19 and it doesn't make sense to keep small businesses closed.
"The governor is killing the state over a little bug," Hicks said Monday.
State health officials have reported more than 2,700 cases. About 150 people are hospitalized and 99 have died.
McKinley County, which is just to the west of Grants, is leading the state with the highest number of cases despite its smaller population.
Once a booming town connected to logging, Route 66 tourism and uranium mining, Grants took a big economic hit when the mines closed and over the decades many businesses along the main street shuttered and have remain boarded up.
Lujan Grisham has said the mayor's plan makes "absolutely no sense whatsoever" and warned that State Police would continue enforcing the health order.
Those at the morning rally included political activists from elsewhere. They waved American flags as one person held a sign that read: "Open Grants Now." It was otherwise a quiet start to the day as State Police did not send any extra officers to Grants due to the mayor's earlier threats of a confrontation.
State officials say officers will handle any complaints about businesses operating in violation of the health order as they have elsewhere - first with a warning and then subsequent citations that could carry fines between $100 and $5,000.
Diane Rowe, the owner of Papa's Pawn Shop, has been going against the governor's order for more than a month now and has even been cited, CBS afiliate KRQE reports. Rowe stands by the mayor and believes businesses should have the choice to stay open if they want, all while following necessary precautions to prevent the spread of the virus.
"We're not allowing browsers at this time. We greet people at the door and ask them how can we help you," Rowe said. "If they say we're looking or just browsing, we ask them to come back after the virus is over."
David W. Loeffler was letting only four people at a time into his family-owned gun shop. He's been open since the public health order first went into effect in late March. He already has been warned once and he's expecting to get a citation soon. He shrugged and questioned why other larger stores were allowed to remain open.
The owners of a thrift store planned to open Tuesday. Outside, the marque read: "Go Rogue!"
Other business owners were watching to see how it plays out while others still were uncomfortable with the idea of reopening.
Cheryl Pynes, 68, the owner of The Handbag Lady, decided to hold off because of concerns about the virus and its effects on older people. However, Pines said the order should be reconsidered at some point and if it's not, she may have to reopen anyway.
After thanking business owners around the community, the mayor said he planned to go play golf. About 20 other people also showed up at the city-owned golf course and continued to play despite a warning by State Police for the facility to close.
Golf courses elsewhere in the state remained closed due to the public health order.
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