By DAMIEN WILLIS Las Cruces Sun-News
CORONA, N.M. (AP) — Last Wednesday, I went for a drive. After leaving Las Cruces and driving to Tularosa, I headed north through the sagebrush, juniper, creosote and what might have been skunkbush sumac, Mexican poppies or yellow-flower purslane — or maybe Todson’s pennyroyal — nestled between the rolling hills of the Tularosa Basin.
In this time of coronavirus, I was headed to Corona, New Mexico — a tiny town of 163 residents in Lincoln County — to see how they were handling the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic. So far, Lincoln County has one confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. To no one’s surprise, locals had noticed out-of-towners stopping to take photos on the highway near the town-limit signs, and in front of the Town Hall.
“Some stopped out in front of Village Hall the other day,” Mayor Sam Seely told me. “And I turned to someone and said, ‘We ought to walk out of here coughing, and see what they do.'”
Seely was elected mayor in November and took office in January. Soon, he was facing the biggest public health crisis anyone has seen in several generations.
“It’s impacting. But I think, as far as everything goes, we’re handling it about as well as anyone in the United States,” Seely said. “I’m always proud of the people in Corona, but everybody’s … maybe not so much following the mandates from the governor or the federal government, but everybody’s using common sense. Everybody’s really been looking out for each other.”
“Social distancing is kind of the norm for us,” Seely said of his village. However, when people meet at the post office, they’re still learning not to shake hands — especially with people you’ve known your whole life. I myself had to resist that temptation during my visit, meeting so many people for the first time.
Seely said the residents of Corona were pretty well situated to survive the pandemic, from an economic perspective.
“Pretty much everybody in Corona is either retired and drawing a pension, or Social Security, or they work for the state, the county, the village or the schools,” Seely said. “So pretty much everybody is still getting a paycheck of some sort.”
Business has been booming lately at the Corona Motel, thanks to construction on the BNSF Railway, which runs through town. However, things had tapered off pretty quickly after the state’s first cases were announced on March 11, according to owner Rhonda Oord, who owns the motel with her husband, George.
“When it first started, we were getting all of the snowbirds going home,” Rhonda told me, sitting in the motel’s front office. “And early on, people were trying to do their spring break, but then they pretty much gave up and went home.”
Due to an overall decline in tourism, she said, the first week in April was pretty slow.
But the motel’s 12 themed rooms — including the Old Hollywood Room, the Bunk House and the Man Cave — have been booked solid for about a week now, Rhonda said, since the railroad construction began.
The project has been declared essential business, according to a letter the railroad workers provided from the Department of Homeland Security. Thanks to the Corona Motel, which Rhonda and George purchased about five years ago, the workers — who have traveled from Nevada, Utah and other far-flung locations — have a place to lay their heads. With the town’s only motel now full, some local residents have started renting spare rooms and guest houses to the crew members.
Rhonda remains hopeful that life will begin returning to normal before the town’s Corona Days festival, which takes place the last full weekend in July.
“But I don’t know if anybody really knows what’s going to happen,” she was quick to add. “Whatever happens, happens.”
Eric and Nancy Anderson moved to Corona from the Seattle area about two and a half years ago. As it turns out, the Andersons used to live about two miles from the Oords in Washington. After the Oords moved to Corona and bought the motel, the Andersons began visiting Corona to see their old friends.
“We came down to visit, and we thought, ‘This small town in the middle of nowhere — there’s no way we could do this,” Eric said. “But then we went back there and fought the traffic and the taxes. And, after a while, we thought, ‘Y’know, maybe we could do this.'”
Initially, the Andersons considered opening a restaurant in the vacant building next door to the Corona Motel.
“We decided against that, because it would’ve taken a lot of work and there really isn’t help here to hire. There just isn’t the workforce,” Eric explained. After conversations with locals, they decided the town could use a grocery store. At the time, the only place in Corona to buy groceries was the Corona Mini-Mart — which stocks a selection of nonperishable items.
Before the opening of the Crown City Market, residents had to travel to nearby Carrizozo or Vaughn for their grocery needs — or to Alamogordo, Roswell or Edgewood for larger shopping trips.
After a remodeling job that took about two and a half years, the Andersons announced on March 18 they’d be opening the store on April 2.
“But then, all of this happened,” Eric told me. “And we had some essential items that people in the village needed — like toilet paper and bleach, things like that. So we started opening some days ahead of plan.”
On March 19, the store opened its doors to the residents of Corona.
“It’s been an interesting time to open, because of all this,” Eric said. “Getting product in has been difficult. Today, we got an order — and we got probably about half of the things we ordered. Half of it just wasn’t available. But, on the other hand, the village has been extremely supportive.”
Corona has a grand total of four businesses — all essential, and all remain open. All seem to be weathering the change as well as could be expected, but the local café seemed to be suffering the largest impact. Nubia and Cristina Beltran have owned the El Corral Café for 15 years.
Like most small-town cafés across America, breakfast and lunchtimes are normally bustling with traffic — old-timers telling stories for hours over endless cups of coffee, villagers stopping in for enchiladas on their lunch break. Since the COVID-19 outbreak, however, business has been down almost 80 percent, Nubia said.
Chairs are flipped upside-down on the diner’s tables; a long, folding table greets customers just feet from the front door, where they place to-go orders or pick up their carry-out.
“It’s been very sad,” Nubia told me, wearing a facemask and gloves. “But we’re still open for the community. We’re trying very hard.”
Monique Johnson, who has owned the Corona Mini-Mart for 10 years, said she has been working at keeping the convenience store as well-stocked as possible. Like the Andersons, she said deliveries have become unpredictable because of disruptions to the supply chain.
Johnson, who has four children, said the statewide cancellation of schools came as a shock.
“Our kids aren’t in school, and all of their extracurricular activities they’d had planned for months, it just stopped,” she said. “We stay at home a lot, and so it hasn’t been too bad — yet. We’ve gone outside more. We’ve done things we haven’t done in a long time, and it’s been nice.”
In the earliest days of the pandemic, she said the Mini-Mart was busier than usual — “like, summer-day busy.” But after the statewide stay-at-home order came down, things have slowed dramatically.
“Our locals come in, but not as often as they would before,” she explained, adding that the store has enacted social-distancing protocols, such as limiting the number of customers allowed inside at one time.
“The safety of my employees is my top priority,” she said. “We cut back our business hours and we try to ensure people aren’t crowding the register.”
Whether the town will be able to return to something resembling normal in time for Corona Days is anyone’s guess. But, as well as the town has adjusted, it’s clear that most of Corona’s residents are ready for a return to something resembling the life they once knew.