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First Financial branches feel the pinch as coronavirus closes Gallup, N.M.

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An emergency declaration shutting down the city of Gallup, N.M., has made it more difficult for First Financial Credit Union to serve its members.

Under the order, roads into the city have been closed, and the New Mexico State Police and the New Mexico National Guard are stopping vehicles from entering Gallup. Business hours are also being limited, and social distancing enforcements are in effect. Those that fail to follow the restrictions face possible fines.

The restrictions, which are more severe than most stay-at-home orders, were put into place on May 1 after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham invoked the Riot Control Act due to the rising number of coronavirus cases in the area. Gallup borders the Navajo Nation reservation, which is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks in the country.

Gallup is in McKinley County, which had 1,144 COVID-19 cases as of Sunday night, according to a press release from the governor's office that extended the emergency order to Thursday. New Mexico has more than 4,100 cases, according to the New Mexico Department of Health.

A First Financial Credit Union branch in downtown Gallup, N.M.

"I recognize this request is unusual and constitutes a drastic measure, and the emergency powers set out under the Riot Control Act should be invoked sparingly," Gallup Mayor Louis Bonaguidi, who requested the emergency declaration, said in a letter to the governor. "However, the COVID-19 outbreak in the City of Gallup is a crisis of the highest order."

These efforts to slow the spread of the outbreak have drastically altered the way that First Financial does business. The newly enforced business hours of 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. mirror those set for the nearby Navajo Nation. The Albuquerque, N.M.-based credit union was already operating its branches with a drive-thru-only model but it then needed to scale back the hours of its two branches in Gallup from the usual 7:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily.

Those branches generally see a lot of foot traffic because Gallup is a cash-heavy city, said Karen Ortiz, First Financial's chief operating officer. Because of the reduced hours, the $593 million-asset credit union has turned away members who show up after 5 p.m. needing banking services. More than two dozen members were told they had to come back another time on May 1, the first day the order was in effect, and Ortiz estimates that the CU will be turning away five to nine members per day until the order is lifted.

Employees can't even tell these members to visit another branch because no one is allowed to leave the city.

“You can’t direct [members] to another branch at this time because they brought the National Guard in,” Ortiz said. “You’re just dead in the water.”

However, more members are turning to First Financial's online offerings because of limited access to branches. Since the pandemic’s start, the credit union has added roughly 6,000 members to online banking each month, up from its usual 300 to 500 new online banking members.

The credit union also had to restructure its call center because of social distancing requirements. Since employees need to maintain a six-foot distance from one another, they can no longer operate within the same room. That means First Financial has needed to spread these employees out to work in different locations.

“That not only impacted the larger call centers, but it impacted credit unions who have small centers of 10 to 20 people sitting in a call center taking calls for members,” Ortiz said. “All of a sudden we couldn’t have them sitting in the same room; we had to disperse them to different locations.”

There was no advance warning about the emergency declaration, making it challenging for First Financial to comply with the restrictions. The local government is enforcing the rules by issuing citations to those who fail to comply. A third citation results in a fine, Ortiz said.

“The time frame in which we were given to implement these orders with no heads up was very difficult," Ortiz said.

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