Organizer Says State GOP Backed Online Push For N.M. Businesses To Violate Shutdown Order

Apr 21, 2020

UPDATE, 4/22/20, 2:00 p.m.: Steve Pearce, chairman of the New Mexico Republican Party, says the party was not contacted by O’Rion Perry and did not participate in or endorse Take Back New Mexico’s call for businesses to violate the shutdown order.

Pearce said Wednesday Perry is, “putting words into our mouth.” KUNM did reach out to the Republican Party several times on Monday and Tuesday about whether the state’s GOP was backing the effort, as Perry told KUNM in an interview. Pearce’s spokesperson canceled a Monday interview at the last minute.

Read more on on the GOP's position in our story published Wednesday.

Groups across the country have protested for state governments to end their shutdowns despite the continuing spread of the coronavirus and climbing death toll.  The New Mexico Republican Party last week called on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to ease restrictions to allow small businesses to reopen with social distancing practices. Now, a New Mexico group that says it's backed by the state's GOP is calling for businesses to defy the public health order outright, but local establishments haven't responded publicly as they had hoped.

New Mexico so far has seen 2,072 confirmed cases and 65 deaths, and health officials expect the outbreak to peak later this spring. 

On Monday, April 20, the group Take Back New Mexico posted a Facebook event calling for non-essential businesses to reopen. O’Rion Perry of Clovis, one of the organizers, said the idea materialized in the comments section of a state GOP conference call last week. 

"I saw a lot of chatter on there about ‘we need to stop asking for permission,'" Perry said, "so I just went ahead and made the event page. The Republican Party did say they were 100 percent for it." 

Perry says the party generated the online form his group is using to recruit participants. The Republican Party this week did not confirm or deny their support of businesses for defying the public health order, and Chairman Steve Pearce abruptly cancelled an interview with KUNM on Monday afternoon, citing urgent party business. Here’s the statement a GOP spokesperson offered in response to KUNM's questions:

"The health and safety of all New Mexicans come first, but we believe the governor’s decision to keep big box stores open and close locally-owned mom and pop businesses across the state is wrong. We can responsibly have social distancing at all establishments, something that’s NOT happening at the national chains. Meantime, our local businesses are collapsing, closing and people may never recover. We encourage local governments to breathe life back into their communities and support responsible resolutions and calls to state government to reopen businesses."

In a Facebook event page Monday morning, Perry said a list was coming soon outlining businesses that planned to reopen was coming soon, but it was never posted. He said his attorney advised him not to post the list, so instead he later asked businesses to announce their participation themselves on a new public Facebook page. But none of the 75 or so mostly rural businesses that Perry said had signed on had posted by Tuesday. He said he thinks they’re afraid of the legal consequences of violating the order.

Perry said he's heard positive response from businesses off Facebook as well, but the inability to post a list of open establishments "put a kink in things a little bit. But it’s just about getting the word out a little bit more."   

In Santa Fe on Monday, about 16 cars of people gathered outside the state capitol building in an action dubbed "Operation Gridlock," the Daily Lobo reports. Among the anti-lockdown protesters was Alexis Martinez Johnson, a Republican running for Congress in New Mexico's 3rd Congressional District. 

In an op-ed published in the Santa Fe Reporter last week, Gov. Lujan Grisham condemned what she called a false choice between the economy and public health, and said opening back up too soon would overwhelm the health care system and potentially cause a future second shutdown.

Federal researchers have outlined a range of possible death tolls the U.S. could suffer if people abandon social distancing too soon – from a “moderate” scenario of about 300,000 dead, to upwards of 1.8 million. According to CDC and state data, black and brown people and the elderly are disproportionately at risk of dying.

The state has ordered all non-essential businesses closed until at least April 30 to limit the spread of the coronavirus. For accurate information about the coronavirus, visit the state's Department of Health webpage.

Read the transcript of KUNM's extended interview with Clovis organizer O'Rion Perry: 

KUNM: What is the Take Back New Mexico action calling for today?

O’RION PERRY: Stop begging for permission to live your life. That's pretty much what it comes down to.

KUNM: So can you tell me more about why you've organized the action that you have?

PERRY: So it started out, I saw a live feed for a Zoom conference for the Republican Party in New Mexico. I saw a lot of chatter on there about ‘we need to stop asking for permission.’ So I just went ahead and made the event page. The Republican Party did say that they were 100 percent for it. They actually helped with a little bit of the organization.

KUNM: What was their role in supporting it?

PERRY: Well, they actually they made up the form for the businesses to fill out.

KUNM: Why should small businesses across New Mexico open even if ordered shut by the public health order?

PERRY: Well, I mean, they can implement social distancing in their stores. We can act as responsible adults without hurting people's livelihoods and destroying businesses. I know of a few business owners that have said that they're not even going to be able to open back up because they've gotten so far behind because of this.

KUNM: I’d love to hear more about what you're hearing from other small local businesses that have been ordered shut.

PERRY: My dad, for example, is a small business owner. He owns a furniture store here in Clovis. He's had to adapt a little bit; they've told him that he can do deliveries, but the fact is that Walmart sells a lot of the same stuff he does. People can just go to Walmart and look at it and pick what they want and get it. And so he's lost a lot of business over all of this. And a lot of businesses in that predicament didn't even get to get involved in the payroll protection that they were talking about, because it ran out of money so quick.

KUNM: The governor penned a letter to New Mexicans that if we open too soon, more people get sick, the health care system will be overwhelmed, and another closure may need to happen, which would result in extending the economic pain that we're going through right now. What are your thoughts on what the governor's position is?

PERRY: She's just really out of touch with a lot of things in rural life, I guess you could say.

KUNM: What kinds of things?

PERRY: Like in Clovis, for example, we have had 10 cases for how long now? And we're losing businesses because of it, when all the people that are complaining about it are the same people that are going to Walmart every day, and then telling everyone else they need to stay home.

KUNM: What is the response been like? How many businesses do you have participating?

PERRY: I don't have a final number at the moment, but I know it was upwards of 75ish, the last time I got a number. It's been a pretty decent turnout. Main thing is the fear of legal ramifications later on down the road. A lot of them don't want to have to deal with that part of it.

KUNM: What is your group willing to do for a business that is cited for violating the public health order?

PERRY: When we hear of that happening, we let surrounding areas know. The goal is to get people there to protest the shutdown while it's happening. The idea is if there's enough community support, then they're not gonna have much to worry about.

KUNM: Do you think you have enough community support?

PERRY: For the most part, yeah, I do think so.

KUNM: And what tells you that? Is that from people commenting on the Facebook group, or?

PERRY: There's actually a lot of people that were worried about being affiliated with the event, so I've talked to a lot of people off of the Facebook as well, and there's been a pretty decent response.

KUNM: Your attorneys advised you not to release business names. So you've created a Facebook group where a business can affiliate themselves with your action and let folks know that they're open so that people can go there. It doesn't look like so far any businesses have posted publicly that they're participating in your action. Are you concerned about people's hesitance to come out publicly? And will that affect the ability for the community to really rally around these businesses if they don't know who they are?

PERRY: It makes it difficult, yeah. The little twist this morning with not being able to publicly post, that did kind of put a kink in things a little bit, but it's just a matter of getting the word out a little bit more.

KUNM: What do you think we'll get the businesses to actually step up and post in it?

PERRY: I feel like if at least one business would do it, then more would follow.

KUNM: After today's launch, what do you have planned for the future of this group?

PERRY: This is going to be an ongoing deal. There are several other protests that are in the works that are gonna kind of show the community support a little bit more and show that more New Mexican actually do want to reopen the state.

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This interview with Take Back New Mexico organizer O’Rion Perry was part of a recent episode of Your NM Government, which airs on KUNM 89.9 FM weeknights at 7:30 p.m. The show is a collaboration between KUNM, New Mexico PBS and the Santa Fe Reporter.

KUNM's Hannah Colton contributed to this report.