GRANTS — At 10 a.m. Monday, Grants Mayor Martin “Modey” Hicks was buying eggs and ammunition at a local gun store.
Eggs are always good for cooking. And with ammo — plus a gun — you can get other types of food if need be, Hicks reasoned.
The freewheeling Democratic mayor of this Western New Mexico city of 9,000 people stuck to his proverbial guns Monday morning, welcoming the opening of a few Grants businesses in defiance of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s stay-at-home order. But if Hicks’ mini-rebellion drew plenty of media interest and spurred speculation about a potential confrontation with state police officers charged with enforcing the closures of nonessential businesses, it didn’t seem to raise the pulse of Grants shop owners, many of whom kept their storefronts closed.
Nevertheless, Hicks seemed pleased about making a statement on behalf of some of his constituents.
“We’re not gonna do it anymore,” he said shortly after leaving the Loeffler’s Guns, Etc. store on Santa Fe Avenue, with a box of .357 Magnum cartridges in hand.
Though no state police vehicles were seen on the streets of Grants before noon Monday, at least one Grants business owner — Diane Rowe of Pa’s Pawn — said officers came by to cite her for remaining open at 3 p.m. She said they left the citation on her front door, which was closed and locked at the time.
The furor over the stay-at-home order — and Hicks’ confrontational opposition to it — has placed Grants under a statewide microscope, particularly after the mayor last week referred to state police as “the Gestapo,” a description for which he has since apologized.
On Monday, he said he didn’t want to see a confrontation between state and local police over his decision to encourage local businesses to stay open.
But he said if local businesses like Rowe’s were cited by the state for reopening against the order, he planned to sue the governor in federal court.
“The rights the Constitution has given to us, she cannot take away with a public health order,” said Hicks, who complained the mandates give an unfair advantage to big-box stores that remain open because they sell essential goods.
Many Grants residents and business owners said they are well aware of the virus’s danger. But some said they believe small businesses can do a better job than large-scale chain stores in regulating social-distancing practices and limiting access to their stores.
Rowe said she had only been letting two customers in at a time and only if they had something to pawn or wanted to make a purchase.
No browsers, no children, no people who are simply bored and want to hang around are allowed in, she said.
She didn’t technically reopen her business Monday because she had kept it going even after the state ordered nonessential entities, like hers, to shut down.
She said the restrictions are “wiping out businesses that cannot sustain this.”
State police had already warned her to close last week, she said. Monday’s citation, her second, could lead to a $100 fine. A third could lead to a fine of up to $5,000.
Rowe said she’s not sure she’s going to risk that. She said she planned to go home Monday and review her options.
At Loeffler’s Guns Etc., proprietor David Loeffler opened for a half-day Monday — “to support the mayor” — but said he will have to think about whether he wants to reopen on a more permanent basis and risk citations.
“My best hope is that businesses in this town will get back on their feet … and not go out of business or lay a lot of employees off,” said Loeffler, whose store sells everything from pistols to the eggs that caught the mayor’s attention Monday morning.
He said the business restrictions in place can “cause a lot more long-term problems than serious diseases” — emotionally, physically and financially.
Nationwide, others have called for businesses and even schools to reopen despite the COVID-19 threat, as the national death toll related to the disease topped 56,000.
As of Monday, New Mexico had 2,823 positive cases of COVID-19, with 104 deaths — including a Cibola County man who died in a medical facility in Albuquerque — tied to the virus.
Cibola County, centered by Grants, the county seat, has 41 positive cases of the respiratory infection. But nearby locales, including McKinley County to the west, are seeing cases increase at a frighteningly rapid rate.
It was unclear how many other businesses opened Monday in Grants. Hicks pointed to four, including the municipal Coyote de Malpais Golf Course. Less than a handful of golfers was seen on the course around 1 p.m. Monday.
About two dozen supporters rallied around Hicks when he gave an impromptu news conference in front of City Hall shortly before noon Monday. Other residents driving past honked horns or waved to show their support.
Not everyone was happy with the mayor’s decision. Grants native Cheryl Montoya asked Hicks if he would take responsibility for any more deaths tied to the respiratory virus. The mayor — who was not wearing a mask or gloves — said he would not.
God, he said, would “determine who will die and who will not.”
Montoya, who lost a good friend to hantavirus years ago, said she trusts scientific research on the issue and believes waiting another two weeks to see what happens next is reasonable.
Hicks, on the other hand, appeared ready to open the whole town back up soon. He invited the community to attend the city’s celebration of Independence Day, adding there will be a parade and fireworks, among other festivities.
“Come on down!” he said.
He said he did not know what his local Chamber of Commerce thinks of his plan, as it has not issued a statement. But because of a drop in city revenues “they’re fixing to get their budget cut,” the mayor said.
Efforts to reach a representative of the Chamber of Commerce, which was closed Monday, were unsuccessful.
Some Grants residents took the middle ground. Stacey Corley, whose family has run the local Ford dealership in town since the early 1980s, said he can “definitely see things both ways.”
He said a friend of his who lives in New Orleans tested positive for COVID-19, and it’s not clear if the man will survive. “We’re just hoping we can all get past this and hoping and praying for everybody’s safety,” he said.
He said Grants has weathered other challenges and financial storms, including the closure of local uranium mines and a recent decision to shutter a nearby generating station. It was a move, Hicks said, that led to the loss of 300 jobs for Grants residents.
Nevertheless, Corley remains hopeful.
“Grants has a resiliency that you normally only see on the sports field,” he said. “We can make our way through this through this as a city, as a state and as a country. We just have to stay prayerful and work together.”