Two leaders of the largest Native American reservation in the U.S. are in self-quarantine as the Navajo Nation prepares for a weekend-long curfew aimed at curbing the coronavirus outbreak.
The virus has swept with ferocity through the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. The tribe has recorded nearly 600 cases and 22 deaths among Navajos who live on the 27,000-square-mile (70,000-square-kilometer) reservation.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer announced during a town hall Thursday that they are quarantining themselves as a precaution after being in close proximity with a first responder who later tested positive. They say they donned masks and gloves while visiting communities and are following protocols to isolate.
Their decision came as the tribe prepared for the 57-hour reservation-wide curfew that began Friday at 8 p.m. Strict enforcement has been promised, with Navajo police able to issue citations that may include fines up to $1,000 or jail time.
The virus can infect anyone and should not be taken lightly, Nez said.
“With the number of positive cases rising, it’s imperative that we make smart decisions to protect the ones we love,” Nez said Friday evening. “Please think of our grandmothers and grandfathers and those with underlying conditions. Let us also remember that we as Diné are strong, our ancestors overcame many atrocities, for us to be here today — let’s honor their sacrifices by making good decisions.”
Access to health care and medical supplies already is a concern on the Navajo Nation and in other tribal communities in the southwestern U.S that have seen spikes in the number of cases over the past week.
A philanthropic effort announced by former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is the latest aimed at getting more supplies to the Navajo Nation. The National Guard in Arizona and New Mexico also have helped with the response on the reservation.
The Navajo Nation Council, which serves as the tribe’s legislative body, was holding a special session Friday to consider legislation related to the outbreak. One measure would postpone elections for local tribal officials for a year, while another would address price gouging during a state of emergency.
Tribal officials also announced Friday that telecommunication service providers who operate on the Navajo Nation have signed a pledge to ensure more Navajo students, small businesses and residents have internet access during the pandemic. The tribe also is working to set up hot-spot connections for students.
Noting the high number of cases on the reservation, former Navajo president and chairman Peterson Zah said his community has resorted to curfews appropriately to avoid panic but the reaction to the first faraway U.S. coronavirus outbreaks was too gradual.
“It’s like rain — you’re way out in the desert, like on the Navajo Nation, and you look out during the summer and you know that the rain is coming because the clouds are billowing up and you’ve got to prepare,” he said from his home in the Navajo capital of Window Rock, Arizona. “People started running around when it started raining. Before the rain came, we should have been all in sync with one another.”
Another complication has been disparate public health orders in the states that border the Navajo Nation.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham noted that school closures and stay-at-home orders came much earlier in her state than in neighboring Arizona and that officials with the Bureau of Indian Education didn’t immediately close schools. She’s pushing for a more coordinated effort in the region.
Montoya Bryan reported from Albuquerque and Lee from Santa Fe.