New Mexicans have been ordered to stay home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the state reels from more than 1,407 reported infections and 36 reported deaths as of Tuesday. For those lucky enough to have the type of job that can be done remotely, that means turning kitchen tables and spare bedrooms into makeshift home offices. For many others, the pandemic has cost them their jobs.
But there's a category of workers for whom it is business as usual to ensure society functions: These are the city's essential workers, the people who keep grocery stores stocked, keep us safe, care for our children, nurse the sick.
With just 76 cases, Santa Fe County is far from a national epicenter and, while cases are on the rise, police departments, hospitals and fire departments tell SFR the city is well stocked with protective gear to keep essential workers safe and ventilators to keep people alive if they're hospitalized. Grocery store workers are doing longer shifts to keep up with demands, and stores have never been so squeaky clean.
SFR spoke with essential workers around the city to piece together how things are changing while the rest of us are stuck at home. We found the city seems to be quietly waiting and preparing for the worst to come, making necessary adjustments to slow the spread of the virus.
Those working in public safety and healthcare noted the number of people getting injured across the city has gone down in recent weeks—a sign that people are following social-distancing and stay-at-home orders. At the same time, other kinds of 911 calls, such as trespassing, are going up.
None of those we spoke to have experienced major life disruptions from the virus, even though they all interact daily with dozens of people who put them at high risk for contraction. No one in the Santa Fe Police Department or Fire Department has yet tested positive for the virus, and the medical professionals we spoke to have only seen mild cases (though there are 82 people currently hospitalized in New Mexico.)
Sgt. Nick Wood
Santa Fe Police Department
The people whose jobs are changing most right now—and who have the most direct access and insight to the changing pulse of the city around them—are the Santa Fe police.
Sgt. Nick Wood grew up in Santa Fe, graduated from Capital High School in 1999 and joined the Santa Fe Police Department in 2005. He tells SFR his decision to join law enforcement was influenced by his father and several of his uncles, who all retired from the state police force. But Wood says he felt more inspired to join the city department to protect the community where he was raised. As a sergeant, Wood is now responsible for five officers whose patrol area encompasses the city's Southside.
Wood has noted an uptick in call volumes in recent weeks. He believes more people are interested in cooperating with the department. They're calling in issues such as trespassing or raising concerns about neighbors who might need help because more people are home to notice situations that are out of the ordinary, he says.
SFPD logs show the number of incidents reported did go up steadily for the first three weeks after New Mexico's first positive case, and then dropped again in the first two weeks of April.
Wood also notes a rise in calls about domestic disputes and crimes such as break-ins and shoplifting.
"I think we have seen a bit more frequency in those kinds of calls—the kind from a family member or two roommates who have cabin fever and are at their wit's end with each other. And we're called in to kind of keep the peace and or make an arrest if there's actual physical violence being done to one another," says Wood.
When he thinks about what's coming in the next few weeks, domestic violence and crimes related to economic hardship concern him most. The force is working closely with the state Children, Youth and Families Department to monitor children who may be at risk now that schools are closed.
Wood says he's also fielded three to four calls per shift directly related to the COVID-19 emergency, such as people reporting nonessential businesses that are still open. He investigates each one and contacts the businesses to educate them on the order and ask them to shut their doors.
The department is working with the State Police to log violations and issue warnings, and that department is responsible for issuing fines and shutting businesses down if they don't follow the directives of the city police department.
The city department is giving officers more leeway to give people tickets rather than make arrests when they are caught for minor, non-violent offenses in the effort not to crowd the jail and put people at unnecessary risk of infection, Wood says. He's also encouraging officers to take some reports over the phone when possible to minimize their own exposures.
Within the department, his biggest worry is about staffing in the event that officers start to come down with the virus.
"We're already short staffed as it is. When a workforce goes down—if the virus began to spread in our ranks—that would be an issue," he says, adding that Chief Andrew Padilla has issued plans for what to do if that happens. No one in the department has tested positive, though the department is working with hotels to make sure there are rooms available for officers who might need to quarantine if they are exposed to the virus and test positive.
In the end though, says Wood, "I'm hoping that this will bring us together more as a community. When it's all said and done, that people will have a better appreciation for one another and will have established and strengthened community systems to help one another that can last beyond this crisis."
Every weekday, Yvette Mata commutes to her job as a cashier at the Allsup's gas station where Highway 14 meets NM 599.
Mata tells SFR this station is the busiest of all 10 Allsup's locations in the county. It's the first gas station off I-25 for commuters entering the city on the drive up from Albuquerque, and one of the last stations on the way out of town for people who live around the Turquoise Trail.
It's also a central hub for government employees who work in the area, many of whom are regulars in the store.
The New Mexico State Penitentiary, the county jail, the National Guard armory, the State Police headquarters, the Santa Fe airport, Presbyterian Medical Center, the county Fire Department and Regional Emergency Dispatch Center and several other county offices are all located within five miles of the gas station.
"I can tell you that I know at least 85% of my customers by name," says Mata. "All these people, they are like family, because I've known many of them for years."
Even though she lives on the other side of Santa Fe, in the 12 years she's worked for Allsup's, Mata says she's become part of a close community of people whose connections are fostered through interactions at the store.
But this also puts her at a higher risk of catching COVID-19 than most gas station clerks across the city, because so many of the people who come into the store on a daily basis work in jobs that are considered essential and have daily interaction with other people.
"We are seeing the same people that I did a month ago," Mata says. "On a daily basis, two or three times a day sometimes. They'll come in in the morning before their shift, they'll come in on their lunch hour, and then they'll stop in and see us again on their way home."
So far, Mata says she hasn't felt too worried about contracting the virus because the team at the store is extra vigilant about hygiene. Staff members are opening the door for customers, consistently wear gloves and masks, and wipe down surfaces at least every half hour.
Mata was born in Texas but grew up in New Mexico and has five adult children who all live in the area. She's thankful they are still healthy and employed and have not yet felt any personal impacts of the virus.
She doesn't know any customers who have gotten sick or have sick people at home either, and for the most part, she says people are staying positive. Many customers are also wearing gloves and masks, and they regularly ask her how she's doing and if her family has what they need.
"Just yesterday I had a young lady, she walked in and she had an envelope with my name on it, and she actually made us handmade masks, beautiful masks that you can insert a filter in between, and she addressed it to Yvette and all of the Allsup's crew," she says, clearly touched by the gesture. "There was one there for each of us."
This last weekend was Mata's birthday. Though she declines to tell SFR how old she turned, she says she spent the last year looking forward to celebrating in Las Vegas with a week-long vacation. Now, she'll take a staycation instead.
Dr. Virginia Harvey
Presbyterian Medical Center
Dr. Virginia Harvey has worked in the Santa Fe Presbyterian medical center emergency room since the hospital opened its doors in October 2018.
Harvey earned her medical degree on the East Coast and graduated from a residency program at the University of Pennsylvania in 2013, but has practiced in New Mexico for most of her career since. The first job she took was at the Presbyterian hospital in Albuquerque. She's taken one detour between that job and this one, when she and her husband packed up their family and moved across the globe to practice in New Zealand for a year, just for the thrill of it.
As an ER doctor, Harvey is one of the medical staff on the frontlines for treating patients, including those suffering from COVID-19.
"I'm there at the very, very beginning. Especially if somebody is rushed in. If the EMS service thinks they're critical and they're coming with lights and sirens, I'm in the room before anything else happens. That's kind of my style," Harvey says.
Usually, she enjoys working a job where every day is different. But the unprecedented nature of COVID-19 presents a daunting challenge.
Harvey tells SFR she spends most of her spare time learning everything she can about the virus. She jokes that she and her husband, who is also an emergency room doctor at the same hospital, have replaced date night and Netflix with video conferences with doctors from around the country who are sharing their findings on the most effective treatment practices or problems.
"One of the hardest things about this situation is that in practicing medicine, we make decisions based on years of experience and years of clinical trials but this is all so new that we are learning as we go," she says. "But I'm also fairly hopeful because I think it is rare to see this level of camaraderie…So while it certainly can be scary, it's also been inspiring."
Harvey says she's already seen some patients who have tested positive for the virus, but none has been in critical condition. So she's sent them home with clear instructions for how to care for themselves and what symptoms to watch for that could indicate they are headed toward a crash.
She says emergency room volumes have decreased in recent weeks because people aren't driving to work or going to sports practice and are generally putting themselves in fewer dangerous situations.
Christus St. Vincent Health Systems closed down its Southside urgent care clinic citing the same reason last week.
What feels like a lull before the storm has given Presbyterian valuable time to prepare for a possible surge of cases, Harvey says, noting the hospital has already been preparing since before New Mexico announced its first positive case on March 11. That included opening a public test site and planning how to convert the space they have to accommodate patients in critical condition if needed. Presbyterian hospital has 20 ER beds but does not currently have an intensive care unit; but doctors are planning what to do if they suddenly need them, or if other hospitals around the state run out of room, says Harvey.
She is optimistic that the situation will remain stable here. She says people's compliance with stay-at-home orders are already paying off, and the hospital has all of the protective equipment it needs at this point.
"I want to reassure people that we are thinking about this all the time and everyone in the hospital is doing everything we can, every day, to keep our community safe," she says, adding "we chose this profession and, even if it puts us at risk, we are proud to be part of the response."
El Paisano Supermarket
Moises Tarango has worked at El Paisano Supermarket since 1998, when the grocery store and butchery first opened on Cerrillos Road. Now, he works mostly in the office and is in charge of accounts and payroll, but still occasionally runs the cash register.
When he thinks about the possibility of being exposed to the virus at work, Tarango says he's much more worried about bringing the virus home to his family than about getting sick himself. He has to stop his three kids from running up and hugging him like they used to when he gets home at the end of the day, reminding them to wait until he has changed his clothes and showered. As the number of cases increases across the state, he says he's taken it upon himself to model proper hygiene, wearing masks and social distancing in the store, at home and in his community.
"Some people maybe don't understand the full impact [of their behavior on the spread of the virus], especially kids," he says. "With friends and family too, we have to be the example. People in the community are looking to us right now."
Tarango says the supermarket is constantly changing practices to accommodate the evolving COVID-19 emergency. They've started a rigorous sanitation regime, and even before the city passed stricter ordinances for grocery stores, El Paisano was already limiting the number of customers in the store and asking others to wait in line outside at 6-foot intervals marked by red tape. The store provides gloves to all customers upon entry, and only allows one member of each family to enter.
The locally owned grocery store has also started a curbside grocery pickup service for customers to place orders over the phone or Facebook.
Tarango says management is doing everything they can to make sure no one loses their jobs, reassigning kitchen staff to new cleaning duties.
Prices at the store are also being impacted.
"The price for eggs has gone up astronomically," Tarango says, so much so that the store has had to raise egg prices for customers. The cost of meat has gone up too, but Tarango says the store is keeping meat prices the same for customers as long as it can and is swallowing some of the lost profits in the effort to "make sure our community can afford to eat."
Dustin Archuleta and Justin Coffey
Paramedic, Firefighter EMT
Dustin Archuleta and Justin Coffey are usually stationed on opposite sides of the city. But when the department has unusual staffing needs, such as when members are out sick, the two sometimes work together as a team. No one at the department has yet tested positive for COVID-19, but some staff have gone into quarantine due to exposure, and the infrequent partnership between Archuleta and Coffey could become more common as the department adapts.
On a regular day, the two respond to everything from car crashes to overdoses. As a paramedic, Archuleta works to stabilize patients at the scene, while Coffey, a firefighter/EMT, provides medical backup.
Archuleta says they have gotten some medical calls from people who have symptoms of the virus, but the department is treating every call as a potential positive for COVID-19. They now wear masks every time they go out, and have changed protocol for responding to 911 medical calls, trying to limit exposure for first responders as much as possible.
The department has directed first responders to speak to patients who may be sick by phone to assess the situation before they go in, and have limited the number of responders who immediately enter the scene.
Archuleta and Coffey are married to nurses, which means in these families, no one avoids the risk of exposure. But even as members of fire departments across the country come down with the virus in large numbers, Coffey says he feels hopeful Santa Fe will be largely spared. Even if the situation gets much worse, he says, "at the end of the day this is our job. If there's a serious emergency, we're going in no matter what."
Archuleta adds that Santa Feans are doing "an excellent job" at following recommended guidelines. "Keep it up, stay home. This is absolutely the best way that people in Santa Fe can support first responders," he says.