Local residents congregated in front of the Chaves County Courthouse Sunday night in a show of defiance and open opposition to a new state public health order aimed at controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Few people in attendance wore a face covering of any kind as they crowded onto the sidewalk, some with American and Gadsden (”Dont tread on me”) flags, while others waved at passing vehicles or sported signs with slogans such as “This is still America,” “ Stop killing American Dreams” and “All Businesses are Essential.”
Periodically the crowd would collectively chant “reopen our state” or erupt into cheers.
The idea for a demonstration gained steam after state Sen. Cliff Pirtle, R-Roswell, posted Friday on Facebook that he was going to stand outside the Courthouse to protest the new restrictions.
“And people showed up,” Pirtle said.
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The demonstration was in response to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s latest emergency health order that among other things prohibits dine-in service at restaurants across New Mexico, prevents out-of-state visitors from entering state parks and strengthens state requirements that people wear masks when in a public setting — and that individuals and businesses that do not abide by the rule be subject to a fine.
Lujan Grisham announced the new rules last week, marking a reversal in the state’ s phased reopening, as cases of COVID-19 continue to soar in New Mexico and across the nation.
According to a press release from the governor’s office Monday, in the last two weeks New Mexico has reported 3,049 new additional cases of COVID-19, representing 20.2% of all cases of the pandemic since it first reached New Mexico in March.
The protest, some attendees said, was a way to voice opposition to the new order with many targeting Lujan Grisham in their comments.
Mark Rowland, who was among the attendees, said he believes Lujan Grisham has gone too far in shutting down the state.
“This is just one small way of saying enough is enough,” Rowland said. “Roswell has had enough of her abusing her authority as governor.”
Rowland added he thinks state restrictions should be based on the prevalence of the virus in a given county, while other parts of the state continue to operate.
“She (the governor) needs to look more on county by county, zip code by zip code. She doesn’t need to just say ‘New Mexico you’ve been bad so we are going to penalize you,’” Rowland said.
Many protesters said they worried the upheaval and economic loss from the governor’s order would have an impact more harmful to the public than the actual virus itself.
“What’s at issue today is that we are going backwards,” Pirtle said.
Bill Thompson of Roswell, an electrician who used to manage restaurants, said he worries about what another shutdown could do to those who work in his former field.
The governor’s order allows restaurants to offer patio dinning at 50% of occupancy as determined by their fire code, and to continue to provide delivery, carry out and pickup services.
Thompson though said restaurants had already experienced losses in income for being shut down and had continued to operate with less money due to only being allowed to operate at 50% capacity. Adding more strain, he said, is they have had to sacrifice even more to keep their employees on the payroll.
“Even at half capacity, they are willing to take the cut to keep everybody employed,” he said.
Business owners outside the restaurant industry also worry what a rollback in the state’s reopening could possibly mean for their operations.
Donald and Andrea James, owners of “Ancient of Days Rock,” say they lost $13,000 in income when they had to close to comply with the state public health order issued in March.
After having being allowed to reopen, Donald James said they are thriving, but that another shut down of their retail store could be devastating.
“If we shut down again, I don’t know that we would be able to survive again,” Donald James said.
Others in attendance want the upheaval in their lives caused by the pandemic to end.
Amanda Van Winkle was at the protest with her two small children and husband.
A student at Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell’s nursing program, she said the pandemic and the measures to limit spread of the virus disrupted her education.
“We had to change our curriculum, how we learned, the teachers had to change exams,” she said.
Van Winkle added because the schools were closed, she also had to teach her daughter who is in pre-kindergarten.
People, she said, should be cautious of the virus and take measures such as washing hands.
She added that people she not be forced to wear masks.
“Nothing should be mandated,” she said.
Breaking news reporter Alex Ross can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext, 301, or firstname.lastname@example.org.