This story has been updated since it was originally published. It initially misquoted Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt, due to the reporter misunderstanding what she said about contract tracing.
Citing concerns about COVID-19, Village of Chama Mayor Billy Elbrock called off Chama’s Fourth of July fireworks display Wednesday (7/2).
“In consultation with the Governor’s Office, the current COVID-19 situation and the inability to effectively enforce COVID-19 Safe Practices as issued by the State of New Mexico is of great concern to me,” Elbrock stated in his order.
The mayor had originally voted in favor of the event at a June 24 Village council meeting, casting the deciding vote in the matter.
“We have literally been on lockdown since mid-March,” he had said in defense of the event. “We need to get some sense of normalcy back. We've had everything taken away from us. I'd hate to see fireworks taken away from us, something that symbolizes our nation.”
The plan to go ahead with the display, which was set to occur Saturday evening, drew criticism from numerous citizens and health officials, who were worried about the COVID-19 and fire hazards of the event.
In past years, between 4,000 and 6,000 people from across the state and beyond have attended the display.
A public gathering of such magnitude “has the potential to have a major negative impact on the health and well-being of the residents of the Chama Valley and all who attend the display,” wrote La Clinica del Pueblo de Rio Arriba Executive Director Darren DeYapp, Medical Director Levi Maes and Medical Provider Jodi Casados in a June 26 letter to Village officials.
Due in part to a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in northern Rio Arriba, residents of Chama have been exposed, Rio Arriba County Health and Human Services Director Lauren Reichelt said.
DeYapp, Maes and Casados wrote in their letter that La Clinica detected new cases of COVID-19 in the Chama Valley every day during the week of June 22.
Chama is also a tourist hub, and despite the pandemic, visitors from all over the Southwest are arriving.
“Chama is as busy as I have ever seen it,” Elbrock said. “Cars from Colorado, Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, just from everywhere. Our store is constantly full.”
The potential for the virus to “run rampant” in the Chama Valley is high, and the community has limited medical resources, DeYapp, Maes and Casados wrote. The hospitals nearest the Valley are already functioning at or above capacity.
The virus could also easily spread beyond the Chama Valley were the display to take place, Reichelt said.
“I’ve been looking at Rio Arriba as a firewall, and if we create a huge conflagration here, it’s gonna spread to Santa Fe and just be a mess,” Reichelt said in a June 25 phone call. “So this is a public menace, and it needs to be stopped.”
The risk of transmission of the virus increases “tremendously” at large public gatherings, the clinic directors wrote.
To prevent transmission, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham has not lifted her ban on mass gatherings, and health officials understood the fireworks display to be a mass gathering.
“I think a public fireworks display pretty much has to be considered a mass gathering,” said Steve Jenison, who served as the acting deputy secretary of health for New Mexico from March 13 to April 23 and is the rescue chief of the Dixon Fire Department.
Jenison noted that since states have been taking steps to re-open, cases of the virus have risen dramatically across the country.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on Tuesday that the U.S. is now recording about 40,000 new cases of COVID-19 and that the number could rise to 100,000 if Americans continue to disregard social distancing protocol.
“Now is not the time to be doing things that we know promote the spread of the disease,” Jenison said. “It's just the wrong time to take that attitude and that approach.”
He said that people who are taking the situation lightly and not wearing masks or practicing social distancing have likely never had the experience of watching someone die in an intensive care unit of progressive respiratory failure, “let alone seeing people die day after day after day.”
“Is it unpleasant that we cannot gather socially the way we used to be able to do, or is it inconvenient or uncomfortable to wear a mask?” he said. “Yes, but the consequences of not doing these things is that people die. And they are dying in large numbers. And we are starting to see spread of disease into Rio Arriba County now. And as they say the virus doesn't care. The only thing that can make a difference as to whether it spreads or not and causes death or not is what we do.”
Before Elbrock issued the order canceling the event, he had said that people could stay in their cars and wear masks at the display to prevent spread of the disease.
“Everybody realizes there is a risk,” he said. “If you're afraid, don't come.”
But he had also said the main road in Chama would likely be double parked for two miles, and that it would be difficult for law enforcement officers to enforce social distancing rules.
“It is a well-known fact that many people do not adhere to social distancing protocols, thereby increasing the risk of transmission to unsuspecting others,” the directors of La Clinica wrote.
Reichelt expressed worry about the potential for wildfire as well, given the extremely dry and windy weather Chama has experienced this year.
Ensenada resident Manuel Trujillo, whose brothers and sisters live in Chama, said he too was very concerned about the spread of COVID-19 and also about fire danger.
“This is real serious,” Trujillo said. “This is my life at stake.”
He said he believes Elbrock might have had a conflict of interest in voting for the display––Elbrock sells fireworks, and though he does not provide the fireworks for the Village’s event, the display could encourage more people to buy fireworks, Trujillo said.
Elbrock denied the allegation.
“I’ve been selling fireworks in town for 28 years, and I’ve been putting on the show for 15 years, and there is no conflict of interest,” he said. “I do not benefit from it at all.”
During a June 24 Village Council meeting, he broke a tie between councilors about the display.
Councilors Scott Flurry and Jolene Jones voted in favor of it, while Councilors Matthew Gallegos and Ernest Vigil voted against it.
Flurry said he voted in favor of the event because most Chama residents he spoke to wanted to attend the display, and because he believes it “draws the community together.”
The decision was not an easy one, he said.
Vigil said he voted against the event because he felt a fireworks display is not worth the risk of people’s health or of wildfire.
“I can honestly go to bed at night knowing that I voted on behalf of the people’s health,” he said.