Navajo Nation enforces curfew as coronavirus cases near 150

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A nightly curfew was enacted Monday on the Navajo Nation as tribal leaders rushed to contain a surge in coronavirus cases around the Four Corners area.

As of Monday evening, the number of confirmed cases had grown to 148 with five deaths related to the virus. The nation announced its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 17, and a voluntary stay-at-home order was issued by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez three days later.

The rapid spread of the disease over the past two weeks prompted the Navajo Department of Health to increase restrictions and impose the curfew, which requires residents to stay in their homes between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. Employees on essential business who are out at night are required to carry “official identification and/or a letter of designation from their essential business employer on official letterhead, which includes a contact for verification.”

The curfew went into effect Monday night, and reports from Tuba City, Ariz. — the largest community on the Navajo Nation — showed tribal officers stopping vehicles to enforce the order.

At a virtual town hall meeting streamed on Facebook on Tuesday, Nez said the order appears to have been effective in the capital of Window Rock, Ariz.

“We saw a ghost town [last night],” he said, thanking the businesses and tribal members who obeyed the curfew.

San Juan County, Utah, had six confirmed cases as of Tuesday. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe ordered a separate curfew in the town of White Mesa that lasts from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m nightly.

James Adakai, president of the Oljato Chapter of the Navajo Nation, told The Salt Lake Tribune the Navajo Nation’s curfew applies in San Juan County as well, even if there is less overt police presence in rural areas due to personnel limitations.

“For all communities across the Navajo Nation, [the curfew is] being enforced right now,” Adakai said. “I think it’s a good thing because we certainly don’t want people out there after hours. It’s all for one reason, which is to prevent the spread of the virus.”

And even during daylight hours, Adakai added, leaders are still requesting people to stay home except for essential trips such as to pick up groceries or medical supplies or to haul water.

Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco questioned the legality of enforcing the curfew in an interview with KUER on Monday, but Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen McPaul provided an update on the order’s legal basis at the town hall.

“Our office of the prosecutor is working closely with the Navajo Police Department on these issues,” McPaul said Tuesday, adding the Department of Justice’s “position is that the Department of Health does have the authority to create these public health standards and to enforce them.”

In addition to the curfew, essential businesses that are allowed to remain open, such as grocery stores, are only allowed to let in 10 customers at a time. Gatherings, including religious services or ceremonial practices, are limited to five people. The epicenter of the outbreak is in Chilchinbeto, Ariz., where the virus is believed to have spread at an evangelical church service earlier in March.

In nearby Chinle, Ariz., tribal authorities worked with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to set up a medical station Monday to help fight the spread of the virus and “to deliver 58 beds, blankets, personal protective equipment and other essential items at the Chinle Community Center,” which may be used to isolate coronavirus patents with less severe symptoms.

Nez praised the effort but said more would have to be done for the region. "In speaking with the health care experts, the supplies that were delivered won’t last a full week, but we’re continuing to work hard every day to bring more and more resources. The Navajo Nation is also stepping up and using our own funds from the $4 million appropriation that was approved recently,” he said.

On Tuesday, Nez extended an existing executive order to keep schools, casinos and tribal parks closed through at least the end of April, and nontribal members visiting the Navajo Nation or passing through will also be asked to recognize the restrictions.

“Visitors, with all due respect, please obey our laws [and] our sovereignty,” Nez said, adding he’s been working to request the Department of Interior close Grand Canyon National Park, which borders the eastern Navajo Nation and drew big crowds over the weekend.

Despite the closure of the Monument Valley Tribal Park in the Oljato Chapter several weeks ago, tourists have still been arriving only to be turned back at the park entrance. Adakai, the chapter president, said the issue could be linked to the Grand Canyon remaining open.

“It’s really putting our elders, and people who are high-risk, in danger,” he said. “We have inadequate basic infrastructure. We still have families out there in remote areas without running water and lacking electricity.”

The San Juan Health Department issued an order restricting “leisure travel” through the county on Friday and closed camping to nonresidents, including on federal lands.

“It should be noted that all campers are currently being contacted by law enforcement officers to ensure compliance with the San Juan Public Health Order and closure signage is being established at popular camping locations," Sheriff Jason Torgerson said in a statement on Friday. “Citations can and will be issued, especially in instances of repeat offenders.”

The National Park Service closed Canyonlands and Arches national parks on Saturday, and the Bureau of Land Management canceled overnight permits for the San Juan River and Cedar Mesa on Tuesday.

Tourist-based economies in southeast Utah, from Moab to Monument Valley, have been hard hit economically with the closures. Nonetheless, Adakai said he is trying to be proactive and positive.

“People really need to help each other just like back in old days,” he said. “It’s a kind of philosophy we need to return to — to go back to our traditional teaching.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.