FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – People in the deserts of Arizona flee to the White Mountains when the three-digit heat is too much to endure and cool down in the woods a few hours away. That worries a Native American tribe calling the area home, as coronavirus infections and temperatures have both risen in one of the hardest hit states.
The White Mountain Apache Tribe is taking some of the most drastic measures in Arizona to protect its 13,500 residents, more than one-eighth of whom have already tested positive for COVID-19. It takes cues from severe measures imposed by other national tribes, including the Navajo nation, which has curbed an outbreak that once turned it into a national hot spot.
Those living in the White Mountain Apache Tribe reservation in northeast Arizona are at risk of fines and other penalties for going outside their own yards this weekend. A two-week order for shelter follows. The tribe’s Fort Apache Reserve is also closed to summer visitors who flock to the area for fishing, hiking, and camping among ponderosa pines.
The confirmed infections and 20 deaths from the tribe as of Friday make the reservation one of the hardest hit places in a state that records more than 3,000 cases per day and is short of hospital space.
“COVID has just turned our world upside down,” said White Mountain Apache Chairman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood.
The tribe also orders homeless people who test positive for the virus to quarantine at the tribe’s casino hotel – now closed to visitors – and prohibit the sale and use of alcohol for the rest of the year. Lee-Gatewood hopes it will help protect people if they become lax about social distance and other measures while drinking.
The strict strides of the tribe come now that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey has refused to impose new restrictions on companies like other states where confirmed cases are increasing. Fellow Republican governors in Texas and Florida cracked bars on Friday.
Ducey, who lifted a home affirmation in mid-May, has now suspended further efforts to reopen the economy and allows cities to demand face coverings, without bowing to pressure for a state-wide mandate.
Lee-Gatewood said the White Mountain Apache Tribe, along with the typical summer crowds, took that into account when deciding how to fight the pandemic on her land.
“We see that these visitors do not pay attention to social distance and wearing masks, and the governor had a very relaxed attitude about this when reopening the companies,” she said.
Elsewhere in Arizona, officials in the Havasupai Reserve deep in a gorge near the Grand Canyon river rafters warned that they would be detained if they walked on foot into the land that the tribe traditionally uses, but is not part of its formal reservation. Known worldwide for its towering blue-green waterfalls, the reserve has been closed for months and no COVID-19 cases have been reported.
“We must take aggressive measures to maintain the safety of our tribesmen and the future of the Havasupai tribe,” President Evangeline Kissoon wrote in a message to river guides.
After speaking to Grand Canyon National Park, the tribe said that law enforcement would stick to the border with the park, miles from the coast of the Colorado River.
The nearby Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Native American reservation covering parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, has attributed an infection delay to a daily curfew that has been around for months, a shutdown of government buildings and tourist sites, weekend locks, and a mask requirement.
On tribal land elsewhere, residents of the small Alaska Native village of Napaskiak are advised to stay home until July 5 and leave only for medical needs or quick runs to the grocery store. A health care company serving the village and dozens of other rural communities pointed to a “high probability” of community dissemination.
In Montana, chieftains at the Blackfeet Indian Reservation this week said they closed their borders to the popular Glacier National Park for the tourist season to protect their residents.
The Sioux tribe in South Dakota’s Cheyenne River has held up barriers since March, despite criticism from the state’s governor. Tribal president Harold Frazier said this week that the tribe made the move because she realized she needed to protect her people.
“All we have is ourselves,” he said.
In Arizona, the White Mountain Apache Tribe said that people can travel across the country on a highway, but they cannot stop on the way. The tribal police are also considering checkpoints and a COVID-19 test blitz is planned.
“There is frustration, there is impatience, there are many things,” said tribe member Jerold Altaha in a video. “But don’t forget we’re doing our best, we’re doing everything we can to help you.”
They want to prevent more people from dying, such as Apache Elder Timothy Clawson Sr., 91. He married his lover under a tree on the reservation and spent his life in the White Mountains working as a farmer and a sawmill.
Chieftain Lee-Gatewood recalled their last conversation. Clawson called earlier this month and said, “Well, chairman, I’m in the hospital and they told me I have this virus. They treated me, and the doctors said I wouldn’t leave here, and I call to say goodbye. ‘
Lee-Gatewood said Clawson told her he was proud of her.
“You’re a tough cowboy,” she replied. “I’ll keep you in my prayers.”
The next day, Lee-Gatewood received a text from Clawson’s granddaughter saying he had died.
Associated Press writers, Becky Bohrer in Juneau, Alaska, and Matt Volz in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.
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