We Are At Risk with Business as Usual: A Tale from Taos

By Rivera Sun (April 21, 2020)

I want to share a story. It’s personal.

Here in Taos, NM, our governor was on the early side of the stay-at-home orders. Our businesses closed, the town turned into a ghost town. We even have a nightly curfew. But here’s the thing: our total COVID-19 cases are 15. They have plateaued for two weeks. Our county’s population is around 30,000 (many of whom use Taos as the main commercial hub). That means our rate is around 40 per 100,000, vs. other counties that have 1500+ per 100,000.

But there’s more to this story. Taos, NM, is a destination spot. People come to the ski valley. We were the highest rate in New Mexico until the stay-at-home orders began. The stay-at-home orders stopped the spread and the influx of people with COVID-19. We know first hand that orders were necessary to stop this. We saw people not cancelling their vacations, trying to book Airbnbs, and fulfilling their non-essential interests when the warnings first started to be issued. It took the orders to get people to stay home.

By comparison, there are places in New Mexico where essential services have included things like oil and gas, where a higher rate of activity is continuing, where people are still out and about. And the rate of infection has climbed along with it. You can almost track it on a map. The highest rate of infection (and deaths, btw) in New Mexico is in the Four Corners region at Navajo Nation. They reported that tourists were still coming even as the pandemic arrived and started to spread in the US. You know what else still going on there? Fracking. Oil & Gas is considered an essential service. So, thousands of gas workers are still out and about doing their work. They’re coming in from other places, too.

Meanwhile, Taos Pueblo, upon whose traditional territory the Town of Taos sits, has completely shut its doors and is preventing non-residents (people who are not tribal members and their immediate family) from entering. One of the reasons I support the continued shut-downs, social-distancing, and stay at home orders is because the Town of Taos has a responsibility to limit the risk to Taos Pueblo. If we open up too early, if our tourists return and bring the disease with them, we expose ourselves and Taos Pueblo in ways that are eerily reminiscent of genocidal pandemics.

There’s this, too: as a rural region with a large incoming tourist group, we are not equipped with hospital beds, respirators, or supplies to care for a sudden and sharp influx of cases. Our doctors and nurses have told us this repeatedly. I believe we have 30 hospital beds in our local hospital. One of the reasons we are trying to flatten the curve is not just to save lives, but to keep our case numbers at a rate our hospitals can handle.

I hope you will consider my personal observations on the efficacy of social distancing in my community. We are very at risk if we try to return to business-as-usual. For us, that means an influx of people from places of higher infection rates. It means exposing our town and Taos Pueblo to those higher rates of infection. It means possibly overloading our limited hospital capacity. I would like to see us avoid all of those tragedies. We can do it. But we have to care deeply and stay home.