FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation approved legislation Monday to reopen the tribe’s four casinos, even as the tribe’s health director warned that the coronavirus is spreading uncontrollably.
The tribe’s casinos in Arizona and New Mexico have been closed since March. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise got the blessing of the Navajo Nation Council to reopen them at a minimum 50% capacity later this month, but it still needs an OK from the tribal president.
Navajo President Jonathan Nez has 10 days to act on the legislation once it reaches him. He has not indicated whether or not he’ll support it.
The casinos employ nearly 1,200 people, most of whom are Navajo. They have been on paid administrative leave. The gambling enterprise has used federal Paycheck Protection Program funding and a share of the tribe’s coronavirus relief funding to stay afloat.
“Our concern is that if we’re unable to reopen, we’re going to be forced into a situation where we would no longer have the cash reserves to be able to open again at some point in the near future,” the enterprise’s interim chief executive, Brian Parrish, told lawmakers.
The enterprise also wants to fully open a new travel center east of Flagstaff adjacent to its Twin Arrows Casino Resort. The tribe’s other three casinos are in northwestern New Mexico.
Parrish said the enterprise has drawn up a health and safety plan in line with recommendations from tribal and federal health experts. It includes social distancing, no smoking, partitions, hand sanitizer and face shields. Safety isn’t guaranteed, but Parrish said employees and patrons will be safer at the casinos than other places off the reservation.
Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Slater said he couldn’t support the reopening while COVID-19 cases are surging across the reservation and in neighboring states.
“My fear is that we will overwhelm our healthcare system,” he said.
Tribal health officials reported 47 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday and three additional deaths. The latest figures bring the total number of reported cases to 11,875 and death toll to 584 since the pandemic began.
Tribal health officials said 126,331 people on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have been tested for COVID-19 since the pandemic started and 7,568 have recovered.
A shelter-in-place order, mask mandate, daily curfews and weekend lockdowns remain in effect on the Navajo Nation.
Dr. Jill Jim, who oversees the Navajo Nation Department of Health, said the tribe was doing well in September but has been seeing close to 100 new cases per day lately. The tribe also is in need of more contact tracers, she said.
“We’re all at uncontrolled spread, she said.
Under the executive branch’s reopening plan, tribal casinos would not be allowed to operate until community spread is low, Jim said.
Most people experience mild or moderate symptoms with the coronavirus, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks.
But for some — especially older adults and people with existing health problems — it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.
In other coronavirus-related developments on the Navajo Nation:
–A website for Navajos to apply for hardship assistance due to the coronavirus crashed Monday, the day it opened. Tribal controller Pearline Kirk said more than 16,000 applications ultimately were processed after glitches were worked out. Still, some had trouble with the site.
The tribe has approved nearly $50 million from its share of federal coronavirus relief funding to dole out to Navajos in need. The program is not first-come, first-served.
Tribal officials said all online and paper applications will be considered for funding. The deadline is Nov. 30.
The maximum financial assistance amount is $1,500 for people 18 and older and $500 for minors, officials said. The first checks are expected to be mailed in early December.