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It was Tuesday, Nov. 24, just after dinner, and Corey Helton was composing his latest Facebook post. Just two hours earlier, the governor’s office had reported the day’s latest COVID-19 numbers and Lea County had seen a 380 percent increase in positive cases since Monday. Five residents, four seniors and a man in his 30s, had died over the past 72 hours. The governor was begging local officials to enforce the state’s public health orders to slow the explosive spread of the virus that had already pushed the local hospital to capacity.
“Good evening Lea County. I wanted to pass on some important information to you all. If you are a business that our queen has deemed non-essential, she has sent her spineless goons to spy and then cite you. … if you encounter these low life’s [sic] call me or the Sheriffs [sic] Office immediately,” Helton posted. “You have a right to know what authority they have and who they are!” he added.
Resistance to public health laws and government orders is nothing new for this deeply conservative corner of southeast New Mexico. But Helton is no ordinary citizen. He’s the local sheriff responsible for enforcing the law.
Openly Violating the Law
At least three times over the summer, Republicans and conservative businesses groups have asked the State Supreme Court to overturn the governor’s health orders. Each time the court has said no. Ironically, those attempts to limit the governor’s authority are creating new case law, clearing the way for extending orders to close businesses, impose fines and generally restrict public activity in the name of public health.
Back in Lea County, resistance runs rampant. In July, Casey’s Restaurant refused to close when a post-July 4 spike in cases prompted a statewide ban on indoor dining. State inspectors received Lea County Sheriff’s Department a complaint and responded—ultimately giving a warning, then revoking the restaurant’s food service permit after they refused to comply. A Pizza Inn down the street lost its permit as well.
The next week both reopened without permission or permits, and the sheriff’s deputies were among their first customers. The Sheriff’s Department proudly posted pictures on Facebook of its deputies eating indoors—without a single mask visible—at the restaurants, both of which were ordered closed under laws they are supposed to enforce. “We’re not there to enforce the governor’s mandate. We’re there to grab a bite and support our local businesses!” read the caption.
But just because the court says the orders hold the force of law does not mean law enforcement has to enforce them. Except in very rare instances mandating immediate arrest, officers have wide discretion in deciding how and when to enforce the law. (If you’ve ever been given a warning instead of a ticket for speeding, you’ve benefited from it.)
During a July COVID briefing, Governor Lujan Grisham made her thoughts clear. “If you don’t want to be a sheriff, don’t run to be a sheriff,” the governor said. “Do something else. But you’ve got to enforce the law.” Sheriff Helton, apparently, wasn’t listening. Attorney General Hector Balderas finally sued Helton in the State Supreme Court. After more than two months, the case was quietly dismissed without action by the court.
Individual Freedom or Personal Responsibility?
In early November the Lea Regional Medical Center was nearing capacity for beds and staff. They reached out to a staffing agency for more nurses only to be told there were none, according to the local Hobbs News-Sun. The tiny local hospital has seen COVID-19 patients taking up more beds since hospitals in Texas and Albuquerque have limited transfers from other hospitals.
As of last week, the state’s positivity rate was hovering around 15 percent—three times higher than the 5 percent rate that first led to lockdowns in late spring. But that statewide number is deceiving because not every county is experiencing the same crisis. San Miguel County is at 5 percent. Los Alamos and Grant Counties (including Silver City) are under 10 percent and falling. But Lea County’s rate is soaring at 32 percent last week and climbing. That disparity has led the state to enact a new county-by-county framework, allowing counties with lower rates to open with fewer restrictions than those where rates are high.
Of New Mexico’s 33 counties, five now have positivity rates above 25 percent: Chaves (Roswell), Curry (Clovis), De Baca (Ft. Sumner), Luna (Deming) and, yep, Lea (Lovington). Notably, all five counties voted for Donald Trump by between 10 and 30 points. A September national survey by the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank critical of conservative media, found that, “Close to half (48 percent) of Republicans, compared to 25 percent of Democrats, say COVID-19 is no more serious than the common flu. Republicans are also more likely to believe that ‘Hydroxychloroquine is a safe and effective way to treat COVID-19.’ “ (Some 42 percent of Republicans believe that compared to only 5 percent of Democrats.) A late-October Gallup poll found that just 49 percent of Republicans would take the new vaccines if they were approved by the FDA. Sixty percent of Democrats were willing. By the numbers, that means that New Mexico’s counties experiencing the highest outbreak rates are also home to those less likely to take a vaccine.
In Lea County, meanwhile, one in three residents is testing positive for COVID-19 right now—including, you guessed it, at least two persons in the Lea County Sheriff’s Department and 10 more in other county offices since October, according to the state’s online watchlist.
In response Sheriff Helton has a new message for his Facebook followers: “We understand the need for Lea County businesses to remain open and provide services and goods to the citizens of Lea County. Sheriff Helton supports your right to keep your business open but asks you do so in a responsible, discrete manner. Keep your business doors locked and limit your customers to those you
know and trust.” [ ]