CIVIC PLAZA — A small group of protesters demanding the reopening of New Mexico’s economy gathered at Civic Plaza Friday while the death toll from the coronavirus in New Mexico continues to mount.
The demonstration — organized locally on Facebook by longshot Republican congressional candidate Brett Kokinadis and a group called “NM Freedom Rally - Operation Gridlock NM” — mirrored other anti-quarantine protests held in Santa Fe and across the country in recent weeks calling for the softening of social distancing restrictions amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While the small nationwide protests continue to make headlines and grab attention online, their origins remain unclear. A Washington Post article found that three brothers from Ohio were responsible for some of the largest anti-quarantine Facebook groups in the country.
“Whether you like it or not, you’re not stopping the virus,” Teresa Espindola, an East Mountain resident, told the Daily Lobo. “The whole goal was to flatten the curve. Guess what? No hospitals in the United States were ever at the point they thought they were going to be.”
In many cases, hospitalization models haven’t reached worst-case scenarios due to citizens’ acceptance of the new normal under pandemic restrictions, according to public health experts in New Mexico.
The New York Times reported that “the discrepancy between the (hospital capacity) predictions and the actual statistics was because of the behavior of New Yorkers themselves. With some exceptions, New Yorkers have managed to follow the restrictions on movement and socializing.”
Global online disinformation campaigns — promulgated by state and far-right actors, including some of Trump’s most prominent supporters — have proliferated and distributed misleading or false information to millions of people during the pandemic.
Christopher Bouzy, the founder of bot tracking platform Bot Sentinel, recently told Business Insider that bots and trolls have been spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories designed to stoke political tensions and make public opinion appear as though it’s starkly divided over state intervention to curb the coronavirus spread.
“Inauthentic accounts are amplifying disinformation and inaccurate statistics and sharing false information as a reason to reopen the country," Bouzy said. "Many of these accounts are also spreading bizarre conspiracy theories about Democrats using COVID-19 as a way to take away American freedoms and prevent Americans from voting."
The Albuquerque iteration of the so-called “operation gridlock” protests was sparsely attended. A few dozen people remaining several hours after the demonstration’s 10 a.m. commencement.
Half a dozen members of a group called New Mexico Civil Guard, whose Facebook presence was established on March 12, 2020, said they were in attendance (several toting semi-automatic rifles) to call for a return to work — and provide a “visual deterrent” to what they claimed were threats of violence preceding the demonstration.
No physical altercations erupted, and no arrests were made.
Nicolas Lomas, who identified himself as a member of the Civil Guard, drove up from his home in Los Lunas to protest the statewide lockdown on businesses deemed nonessential.
“I’m not too concerned about the virus, but I think what they’re doing now — because of the virus — is hurting a lot more people,” Lomas said. “We want (Lujan Grisham) to open up way before (May 15), because a lot of businesses and a lot of people are hurting, and they need the work and the money right now. We can’t wait until next month.”
Bryce, an Albuquerque resident and self-described organizer for the Civil Guard who declined to give his last name, cited the spurious and disproven claim that the coronavirus was a “more aggressive strain” of the seasonal flu and said his group practiced social distancing guidelines while protesting.
There is currently no vaccine for COVID-19, and a safe, FDA-approved vaccine is some 18 months out, according to some doctors.
Additionally, some estimates put the potential infection rate as high as 80% if drastic action isn’t taken by individuals, states and the federal government, according to NPR.
When asked if the Civil Guard was coordinating with national efforts to kickstart the economy in the face of dire warnings from public health experts, a member of the group said he wasn’t allowed to divulge that information.
Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard, recently told Vox that the raft of anti-quarantine protests seen in American cities was a combination of grassroots activism and “astroturfing,” a technique whereby corporations and special interests create the illusion of popular support by organizing behind the scenes.
“I think they see this pandemic and the government response to it as a potentially dangerous moment for their vision of the American economy and people’s place in it,” Skocpol said. “They don’t want people to see how helpful government can be, they don’t want them to change their minds about the role of government in society. So this is a dangerous moment for their ideological worldview.”
Others in attendance said they were frustrated about the economic suffering that the statewide lockdown has prompted and said they wanted state officials to ease restrictions on business — a conviction that sharply contrasts with public opinion on the lethality of the virus and what measures should be taken to contain it.
By party, 70% of Republicans support a national “stay-at-home” order, along with 95% of Democrats, according to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in early April. That same poll found nearly all Americans — about 70% — believe the coronavirus pandemic will worsen.
Still, some at the demonstration said the state’s public health mandates amounted to governmental overreach. Others downplayed the threat of the coronavirus, which has resulted in 2,660 positive cases and 93 deaths statewide as of April 25, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.
Espindola voiced her frustration on the length and severity of quarantine measures, even as experts warn the virus could reemerge with a vengeance if current social distancing protocols don’t remain in place.
“We want to reopen the economy responsibly,” she said. “We feel the governor is just kicking the can down the road. She doesn’t seem to care about the suffering and the loss of jobs that she’s causing.”
The constantly evolving nature of the crisis and when it might abate has made forecasts of when and how to reopen the economy difficult to pin down.
Researchers from the University of Washington estimate that New Mexico could safely begin to ease social distancing requirements on May 24, when COVID-19 infections fall below one case per million people.
The projection noted that only with “containment strategies that include testing, contact tracing, isolation and limiting gathering size” would that scenario be safely possible.
Economic reinforcements from the federal government have been slow in arriving, but additional recovery and assistance programs are on the cusp of going online.
Small business assistance as part of the Paycheck Protection Program will release its second round of funding starting at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, April 27. Additionally, unemployment applications for self-employed, independent contractor and gig economy New Mexican workers are now available.
Racist, discriminatory sentiment was also unmasked on Friday afternoon, with a bandana-clad protester attributing the Navajo Nation’s disproportionate share of coronavirus cases and deaths to the shortfalls of individuals whilst ignoring the systemic barriers faced by tribal communities across the country.
COVID-19 continues to devastate the Navajo Nation — 1,540 positive cases and 58 deaths have been recorded as of April 24. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez has taken aggressive measures to stem the spread of the virus and recently joined 10 other tribes in suing the federal government over the allocation of emergency funds.
“If the federal government can’t get the aid to us quickly, let’s somehow help each other out,” Nez said.
As a convoy of honking pickup trucks and minivans cruised around the block surrounding City Hall and displayed signs imploring the governor to loosen public health restrictions, East Mountains resident Tim Cordova claimed fear is the motivating factor behind the unprecedented actions to stem the spread of the coronavirus.
“Death is imminent, no matter what you do,” Cordova said, declaring that viruses change and will always be on the planet. “You are not going to escape death. Absolutely, the economic devastation is worse than the virus.”
Meanwhile, the spring sun shone on an all-but-deserted Albuquerque street scene while men dressed in military fatigues walked west down Marquette Avenue.
The death toll in the United States has surpassed 50,000 — more than a quarter of all fatalities worldwide.
Justin Garcia and Lissa Knudsen contributed reporting to this article.
Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and the copy chief at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at email@example.com or on Twitter @agunnwrites