TAOS, N.M. (AP) – Those living in and around Taos all appear to be doing the same thing – examining the license plates of out-of-state tourists.
They come from all over, from as nearby as Arizona to as distant as Maryland. They include Georgians, Californians and Oklahomans.
“And Texans,” Taos County Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell said. “Lots of Texans.”
Many states around the nation have seen their number of COVID-19 cases surge in recent weeks, including New Mexico. While numbers have started to decline in some areas, many tourists are still traveling across the country, having been cooped up in their homes for months.
Chris White of Little Rock, Arkansas, perused the famed Taos Plaza in early August with his family. He said his family was on a cross-country trip and that they had only been in New Mexico for just over a day.
“It’s a neat little town,” White said of Taos.
But as he took in the sights, White said he was not aware of the requirement for out-of-state tourists to self-isolate in a residence for 14 days, a rule issued by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham last month.
Had he known of the rule, he said, his family probably would have gone somewhere else.
It’s the lack of knowledge – or willful defiance in some cases – of state-issued health codes that has angered many in Taos, a town heavily reliant on tourism for its local economy.
On a Facebook page titled “Taos & Vicinity Coronavirus Action,” many locals have voiced concerns about incoming travelers not abiding by local health regulations and authorities not enforcing them.
“We are getting tired of the tourists and travelers not abiding by our state mandate and lack of enforcement,” Neha Pant wrote.
Tourists, they say, are putting the rest of the town in danger.
While Taos Plaza was fairly deserted for a typical weekday in August, a smattering of visitors could be seen looking at different shops, some not obeying the local health ordinances.
Deryl Gotcher of Oklahoma said he had just arrived in Angel Fire and was visiting Taos for the day. He said he planned on quarantining in his Airbnb for two weeks but still wanted to see the town. The public health order requires people to isolate within the confines of a residence.
Keith Washburn, also of Oklahoma, had traveled by recreational vehicle to Red River, which his family has visited for many years. He sat quietly in the middle of the Plaza,not wearing a face covering.
When asked why he had no mask, Washburn sighed and pulled a crumpled black mask out of his overalls pocket.
“I’ve got it right here,” he said, putting it over his mouth.
It’s an issue local officials have been trying to address.
On nearly every street corner in Taos, there’s a sign telling people to socially distance and wear masks. The town recently issued its first mask-related citation.
The Town Council recently passed a resolution authorizing the town to revoke permits of short-term rentals that don’t enforce the two-week quarantine.
Taos Mayor Dan Barrone said most visitors abide by the rules, but that there are still a few holdouts.
Barrone, who is also the state representative for District 42, said he hasn’t seen any locals express hostility to tourists, but he does hear about it.
“There is somewhat of a divide,” Barrone said.
In some cases, that frustration among locals has gone far beyond the walls of social media, especially as COVID-19 cases in Taos County have more than doubled over the past month.
Residents and tourists have reported instances of cars with out-of-state plates getting keyed, people throwing rocks at visitors and people yelling at tourists to leave Taos.
Multiple times, someone has sprayed a message on the walls of buildings or shops in the Plaza: “Go home.”
One of those shops was Atira’s Southwest, a high-end clothing store. Atira, who declined to give her last name, owns the store and said the message upset many of her out-of-state clients.
“My customers are very unhappy with that,” she said. “They found it very offensive.”
Others understand why some are frustrated. O’Donnell said she doesn’t approve of the graffiti, but gets why local Taoseños continue to be frustrated with the number of tourists.
“We have seen an influx in tourists unlike anything I can recall,” she said.
Business owners, on the other hand, say they need tourists to survive what is already an extremely difficult time.
Like many other parts of the state, Taos County’s economy has contracted sharply since the start of the pandemic, made worse by its reliance on tourism. State officials announced July 15 that the county had the highest unemployment rate in New Mexico, a whopping 30%.
Balancing the local economy’s need for tourists with keeping local residents safe has been a challenging task for many, one that Barrone said the town has had difficulty meeting.
Many business owners said they do not ask tourists if they have quarantined for two weeks.
“If they come in, we assume they’re following the rules,” said David Smith, who manages Taos Mountain Outfitters.
The owner of Atira’s said that, for many tourists, where they’re from is “a sensitive subject.”
At least three businesses in and around the Plaza have had to close because of employees testing positive for COVID-19.
Taos is not alone in its high number of tourists. Locales across the Mountain West have reported above or near-normal levels of tourism, while other sectors of the economy tank.
However, enforcing health orders on those from out of state can be especially challenging in northern New Mexico.
A high percentage of residences are second homes for people living across the country, many of whom went to Taos at the onset of the pandemic.
It can, therefore, be hard to know how long someone from Texas has actually been in the area.
“They’re tough to enforce,” Barrone said of the health orders.
All the tourists interviewed by the Albuquerque Journal said they did not quarantine for two weeks once they arrived in New Mexico.
Joseph and Deborah Schenk were visiting from Dayton, Ohio, and said they knew of the quarantine, but were being cautious about where they went. They said they planned on visiting Farmington and Gallup after leaving Taos.
That problem is exacerbated in neighboring towns, especially Red River, 36 miles northeast of Taos, where Mayor Linda Calhoun said more than 80% of homes are owned by those primarily living in another state.
The town typically has a full-time population of 400 residents, which can balloon to 10,000 during a good tourist season, Calhoun said. Many of those tourists come from Texas and Oklahoma.
It’s the high influx of tourists from those states that gave rise to its less than endearing nickname – “Little Texas.”
Red River has become a source of consternation for many Taos locals, with many accusing the town of letting tourists ignore rules to wear masks and quarantine, who then travel to nearby towns. Barrone said he has talked to Calhoun about the issue on multiple occasions.
Calhoun said businesses and hotels are abiding by all the health codes, but admitted getting some tourists to wear masks has not been easy.
“Some of the guests that don’t want to (wear masks) are not always kind,” she said.
Red River has a small police department, but Calhoun said no citations have been written, as she has told her police officers to instead give warnings and encourage people to wear face coverings.
Calhoun also said many tourists have taken notice of how many residents in Taos feel about those from out of state.
“There were a few people that said they were uncomfortable going to Taos because they do have Texas plates,” she said.
And while tourism is still lower than in normal years, there appears to be a constant supply of tourists flocking to Taos, many of whom come for the small-town feel and expansive nature.
But it appears that the concern from local residents will persist, at least while the pandemic continues. “They’re not making it safer for us,” O’Donnell said. “And that’s why they need to stay home.”