"Hands up!" the woman said to me. "Hands up!" she repeated.
She was traveling up the escalator; I was heading down, ready to exit Buffalo Thunder Resort and Casino, where I'd spent most of Saturday covering the New Mexico Democratic Party's pre-primary caucus. It took me a moment to realize the good Samaritan was warning me not to put my hands down on the escalator handrail. I'm fairly certain I only realized this because the woman in front of me was holding a rather large sign and the side facing me read: "Coronavirus: Making the Case for Single Payer & Paid Sick Days."
I had wondered, as I drove north that morning, whether the emergence of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 would impact the day's activities. What was an election season without politicians shaking hands? Would candidates don face masks while making their cases to delegates? Would the casino be empty as older smoking gamblers stayed home to avoid exposure?
No, no and no would be the answers to those idle questions. Seemingly chipper people smoking and gambling on a beautiful Saturday morning filled the casino room through which I entered the building. Throughout the day, many folks shook my hand, the only notable exception being US Rep. Ben Ray Lujan, D-NM, who, if memory serves, greeted me with his elbow.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham mentioned the coronavirus at the end of her speech to the 1,200 delegates and candidates in the room, telling them: "You're going to wash your hands for 20 seconds. I don't know who created the meme that says 'wash your hands like you just peeled a sack of green chile and you're going to change your contacts,' but that's exactly right…I don't want to see any hugs, any kisses, nothing. Alright? I want to see a lot of elbows out there because we keep each other safe by making sure we're smart, and there isn't anybody smarter than the folks who are participating today in New Mexico's Democratic party."
I had waited all week for an easy bridge between politics and hygiene and the governor delivered. Still, smart or not, no one seemed to be heeding her advice.
In fact, most of the people I spoke with there and elsewhere throughout the week seemed convinced the entire situation has been blown out of proportion.
As for me, I'd been washing my hands even more than usual and awkwardly offering people hand sanitizer at inopportune moments, but failing at social isolation. Everywhere I'd been all week—events, restaurants, theaters—was packed. Were we in denial or having our last hurrah?
I'd put off writing this column until the last minute, convinced the state Health Department would announce at any moment that New Mexico had its first case (that has yet to happen as of this writing on March 9). This was more pragmatic than defeatist, as state epidemiologist Michael Landen told me last week he expected the virus to emerge and spread here.
On the other hand, a health department spokeswoman told me, also on March 9, it's possible the virus is already here and not yet detected. The state's testing numbers per population (2.2 per 100,000) are between neighboring states Colorado and Arizona, but the state is working to increase testing, and is working with Tricore Reference Laboratories to do so.
At one point, Santa Fe musician Jono Manson thought he might be one of those tested, but because he's symptom free, he wasn't. I reported last week on Manson, who returned home at the end of February from recording and performing in Italy (where the outbreak has now shut down the entire country) and promptly self-isolated on the advice of the health department (which tells me they are monitoring several dozen other New Mexicans who returned from high-risk countries). Manson isn't worried he's sick, but he's not taking any chances.
"If I got it, I'd get sick and get better because I'm healthy and have a strong immune system," Manson told me, "but there are other people I come into contact with every day who aren't in that category. That's the thing people really need to be concerned about, beyond themselves."
I checked in with Manson again this week, who remains symptom free and ready to return home to his family on March 14. He's been writing songs and using his time "creatively and productively," he said. He's also had plenty of time to think and was pondering the precautions he'd be taking when he goes back into the world. "The last thing I want is to leave this and go out and catch coronavirus," he said.
I hope COVID-19 has been blown out of proportion. But right now, at bare minimum, it's a new virus with no vaccine spreading rapidly that has and will be lethal for some. Me? You? Maybe not. But someone. Which is why those precautions—hand washing, social distancing, staying home when sick—might be looked at less as self-preservation and more as the way we act when we care about other people.
The state Health Department has COVID-19 information and resources at https://cv.nmhealth.org/