SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — As COVID-19 cases increase across the Southwest, and New Mexico adds new restrictions to a public health order, there are still communities where not a single resident has tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Two rural New Mexico counties had not had a single confirmed case since the outbreak began. That changed Friday when Mora County reported its first, leaving only De Baca County with no confirmed cases.
De Baca is known for the town of Fort Sumner and it's 19th-century history. It marked the end of a 400-mile death march where thousands of Navajo were forced into internment camps. It's also the place where outlaw Billy the Kid was killed.
Today, De Baca County has only 1,700 residents and is dominated by ranches.
“Most everybody tries to respect each other’s space,” says Tim Sweet, who runs the Billy The Kid Museum in Fort Sumner, where the notorious outlaw was killed in 1881. “I don’t get out much.”
Sweet and his octogenarian parents have opened up the museum gift shop, where they take payments behind a wall of Plexiglas.
He’s not overly concerned about the virus spreading to his town. The collector of history points out that the area persevered through bouts of Spanish flu and bubonic plague.
Visitors are down about two-thirds, Sweet says. But traffic still comes from travelers on road trips.
“We have people from all over the country,” he says. “Everybody has to wear a mask.”
The absence of cases can’t be attributed entirely to small populations.
With around 7 diagnosed cases per 1,000 people in New Mexico, communities with more than a few hundred residents and zero cases have been beating the odds.
Until Friday, Mora County had been on that small list. With a population of about 4,500, the northeastern county made it months without a single case reported.
“Mora is extremely rural, and while we have a lot of through traffic, we don’t have a lot of businesses or places for people to stop and congregate,” says County Manager Joy Ansley.
Residents must travel to neighboring towns like Las Vegas, Taos or Santa Fe to shop for essential items like groceries.
Like rural counties in the western part of the state that have seen major outbreaks, Mora has a higher average number of people per household. That means the emerging outbreak might be tougher to control.
On the bright side, it's easy to keep one's distance.
“My immediate family has been spending more time outdoors and doing things together, and I hope others have done the same,” Ansley said.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham on Thursday rolled back some reopenings, banning indoor seating at restaurants and cautioning residents that further upticks could endanger plans to reopen more of the economy. Contact sports and film shoots are also on hold for the foreseeable future.
Many rural residents like Sweet follow mask and social distancing guidelines but believe the health orders go too far.
Republican lawmakers say the orders punish local businesses unnecessarily.
“People again can’t go inside a restaurant, but they can crowd the aisles at big-box stores that are taking New Mexico’s hard-earned dollars out of state. So this is okay now? The governor’s order makes no sense, and our citizens are paying the price," Republican Party of New Mexico Chairman Steve Pearce said.
Pearce argues that the virus is less dangerous despite the uptick in cases because the mortality rate is down.
New Mexico on Friday reported an additional 301 cases, bringing the statewide total to 14,549 positive tests. The death toll increased by six to 539.
Speaking alongside the governor Thursday, Human Services Secretary David Scrase pointed to astronomical growth rates in infections in counties surrounding De Baca.
“I think we’re going to see an awful lot more in the way of disease spread in the southeastern part of the state,” he said. “If these trends keep up, we’re going to have some serious issues.”
Lujan Grisham also expanded a mask mandate to all outdoor activity, scrubbing exceptions for those who are exercising. She also encouraged police departments to step up enforcement of the $100 fines that are part of the health order.
In De Baca County, office manager Pauline Hernandez says people are refusing to wear masks at the post office and in grocery stores. She says there's resistance because there haven’t been any confirmed cases.
“If we’re zero in De Baca County why should we wear a mask? That’s the attitude some people have,” Hernandez said.
For most people, COVID-19 may cause mild symptoms or none at all.
Hernandez has diabetes and her husband has skin cancer, putting them at higher risk if they contract the disease. She says a part of her wants to chastise people in public who may be putting her family at risk, but she won't make a scene.
“It’s not difficult, people know what they have to do,” she said.
Associated Press writer Morgan Lee contributed to this report.
Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.