It was Friday the 13th of November and Sammy Chioda was leaving his day job—calling out tracks at KYVA 103.7, Gallup’s classic hits radio station—to head to his night job, running his pub, Sammy C’s Rock n’ Sports Pub & Grille.
Then his wife called.
“There are some days I wish I wasn’t in business,” Chioda said, recalling that moment as he tried to process the news. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham had just announced that New Mexico would once again close all businesses for at least two weeks, as measures to thwart the spread of COVID-19 had failed.
“You just listen with your heart and try to understand what the larger purpose of the closure initiatives is going to be,” Chioda said a few days later, seated in his pub. He had converted it from an old JCPenney’s department store and it seemed the perfect reflection of his own personality. Now, he tilted his head back as his eyes searched the walls of signed posters. There was George Thorogood. There was Jerry Garcia. Hardly an inch wasn’t covered with a celebrity’s face.
“You really have to see this place when it’s packed,” he said.
Out of 20 employees, Chioda had already laid off 16. Now he dreaded laying off even more—or at least cutting back their hours: “A lot of people live paycheck to paycheck.” Gallup hadn’t been treated fairly, he said. The city needed more help from the state. “But what’s fair in a situation like this? Nothing is really fair.”
One in five small businesses across the nation has closed since the pandemic began. But almost nowhere in the country have restrictions taken a greater toll than in Gallup. No other city has seen the National Guard barricade its highway off-ramps, as occurred here in May when the virus turned this city of 22,000 into one of the nation’s hot spots. McKinley County, where Gallup is the county seat, accounts for just 3.4 percent of New Mexico’s population but nearly one-third of its COVID-19 deaths. And as spring business closures across the state turned to cautious summer reopening, Gallup’s businesses for the most part remained closed.
Now, as the latest round of business closures was announced, it occurred to many that this city might never bounce back.
The pride of Gallup is its historic downtown, where many of the buildings look nearly as they did 100 years ago. Much of West Coal Avenue is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and runs a block from Route 66. There’s the old Rex Hotel, with its facade of locally quarried sandstone (built 1910), and the Chief Theater (built 1920), with its “Pueblo Deco” panels of glass, and the El Morro Theatre (built 1928), a modern Spanish castle designed by the Boller Brothers architecture firm, who at the time crafted the look of most of the theaters in the Southwest.
On the day of the governor’s announcement, Kara Smith had waited by her office phone, ready for a deluge of calls asking her to explain the restrictions to local business owners. Smith moved from Albuquerque last year to direct the Gallup MainStreet Arts & Cultural District, and she had ambitious plans. The first thing she planned to do was throw a summer music festival in the downtown district. She had hoped local and national acts would draw huge crowds, who would then spend money on drink and food and maybe stop into the antique shops. Now her plans had shifted from expansion to survival.
A full accounting of how many businesses in Gallup have permanently closed won’t be available until early 2021, when licenses come due for renewal. But along with all the closed doors downtown, there are signs that when “normal” returns, Gallup will have markedly changed.
Tourism has almost completely died. The largest draws—the Inter-Tribal Indian Ceremonial, the Best of the Best Rodeo, and the Red Rock Balloon Rally—were canceled. Marathon Petroleum, one of the area’s largest employers, stopped all operations at the beginning of the pandemic; in August, it announced that the refinery would close permanently.
“I’ve been in office exactly 90 days, and in 90 days it seems like the whole world has turned upside down,” Mayor Louie Bonaguidi said after the closure. “The economy has been tanked, our tourism in Gallup is gone.”
By December, the virus was again out of control. At the beginning of the month, Gallup had climbed to the top of the New York Times list of metro areas with the most COVID-19 cases per capita. Bonaguidi himself had tested positive for the virus, though he has since recovered. Meanwhile, the city’s economic straits have worsened. Tax revenues this summer fell by 12.8 percent, then shot up in October, to just 4.6 percent down.
Gallup’s economy relies on travelers who stop between Flagstaff, Ariz., and Albuquerque to eat, refuel, shop and explore. More than seven months after the National Guard reopened the ramps to Gallup, the city still gets calls from travelers asking if it’s open to visitors.
“Oh yeah,” said Jennifer Lazarz, the city’s tourism and marketing manager. “I get those calls a lot.” So now she is spending city funds to post billboards on the highway that announce, “Gallup, we’re open.”
The city had a hard time economically before the pandemic, with a poverty rate of 29.9 percent, far above the state average. Now unemployment in Gallup has doubled pre-COVID-19 numbers, hovering at 15 percent, almost twice the state’s rate. And while Gallup requested $4 million in federal funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES), the state, which distributes the funds, granted only half that amount to the city—regardless of it being one of the worst hit for virus cases in the nation.
People here want “Gallup to stop being treated like the bastard child,” said Lazarz, who also serves as the mayor’s spokesperson. Of the city’s some 800 registered business, only 234 applied for CARES funding. Many found the process too complicated or the deadlines too short. One of Lazarz’s responsibilities was to walk many business owners through the CARES application process—an extraordinary challenge, Lazarz said, since some of the older business owners had never before written an email and didn’t know how to find the required forms online.
Others have opted for cautious survival. Back in 2013, Tiffany and Justin Benson sold everything they owned, bought an RV and left the Virginia Beach area on “a long hippie road trip.”
On their drive west, they stopped in Gallup to visit Tiffany’s grandmother and fell in love. “East Coast towns all started to look the same, but Gallup was different. It’s almost entirely locally owned shops,” Benson said.
A two-week visit became seven years. They sank all their savings into the Gallup Coffee Company, roasting their own beans and using locally sourced milk. In a town of cowboy boots and turquoise belt buckles, the café became a haven for customers seeking a craft espresso.
Feeling awash in good fortune, the Bensons opened a sandwich shop in 2018, aimed at the tourist economy. When that died this year, they closed the shop but, with the help of the CARES money, managed to hold on to the Coffee Company.
What really burns her up, though, is the inequality of the state’s restrictions. As mom-and-pop shops closed their doors, places like Walmart were allowed to remain open.
Yes, she recognized that many of the state’s restrictions were necessary to save lives. But Gallup’s small business community was what had drawn her to the town in the first place. Now the future seemed in question.
“You want people to be safe,” she said. “It’s just hard when the town is near economic collapse.”