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Joseph Martin

Special to Indian Country Today

With neighboring Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the state of North Carolina beginning to reopen in phases, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has also made adjustments to its efforts to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus on tribal lands. 

“We can’t stay closed indefinitely,” said Principal Chief Richard Sneed. “We have to start looking at a phased-incremental reopening.”

By restricting access to its land to tribal members, residents and those with legitimate business on the Qualla Boundary, the tribe has been able to keep its numbers low. As of Thursday morning, it had reported nine positive cases. 

“If we did nothing, and we just continued to operate as normal (by the last week of April), we were projected to have as many as 400 positives here in Cherokee, that we would have at least 45 people who need hospitalization and 23 people who would need ventilators,” Sneed said. 

The tribe’s Secretary for Public Health and Human Services Vickie Bradley said she felt like the tribe’s actions had worked well. "It’s flattened the curve, and that’s the point.”

Sneed has been keeping the public updated through video postings on his Facebook page.

But Sneed said the tribe can’t stay closed forever and needs to start looking at a phased reopening. 

"There is no 100 percent way to protect the community to where nobody gets exposed to the virus,” he said. 

With the need to focus on public safety, he said tribal police need to be taken off their checkpoint duties. 

“We’ve had our officers out there for five weeks, and they’re out there 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day. And we really need to give them a break from that. We really need to get them to get focus back on what their mission is, which is public safety, law enforcement. So we’ll be lifting the checkpoints.”

Tourism has long been a staple for the tribe’s economy, decades before the opening of the tribe’s casinos. 

Travelers to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which reopens in phases Saturday, often stop in Cherokee for meals, souvenirs or to gamble. Fishing also brings in visitors to its streams, stocked heavily with trout. The first phase of North Carolina’s reopening is effective as of Friday afternoon.

Tribal police checkpoints are ordered to close Friday night. The curfew is also being lifted. 

However, signs designating the Cherokee Indian Reservation as closed near main entrances will remain. Cloth face coverings will be mandatory for public spaces. Non-essential businesses, hotels and campgrounds will be allowed to reopen May 15 at 50 percent capacity, maintaining social distancing, posting use of face masks, hygiene requirements and implementing deep cleaning standards. Theaters, barbershops, salons, bowling alleys, spas and playgrounds will remain closed.

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“The park is opening up,” Sneed said. “Essentially we’re hoping that people are just passing through. If they can’t shop here, then there’s really no need to even stop.” 

Fishing to non-tribal citizens, biking trails and the Oconaluftee Island Park, a popular attraction for visitors and locals alike, are all planned for opening May 15.

Tribal government operations will open at full capacity June 8. “We will closely monitor community transmissions, if any occurs, and the effects of this virus to determine what measures we might need to implement in the coming weeks,” Sneed said.

The chief still urges senior citizens and the immune compromised to limit their exposure.

“We all have been well-versed in what we need to do as individuals. This really points to the need for personal responsibility," he said. “We really need individuals to take this very seriously. We need to be even more vigilant now than we were at the outset. The virus is still out there.”

The stay-at-home order and closings have negatively hit the tribe financially, and reopening brings a lot of uncertainty. With no casino revenue for the month of April and at least part of May, the tribe had to discontinue it’s per capita loan program for tribal members, a program where tribal members can borrow against the projected disbursement for six month cycles.

The tribe has been operating through its financial reserves, and it has been budgeting less than 100 percent of expected revenue from the casino. 

However, the casino gaming is a major source of revenue for the tribe, and the chief wants to get them open again, but he urges caution against overly optimistic expectations. 

“Even once we do reopen, we are certainly not going to be at the level of revenue and the number of guests visiting as we had prior to the shutdown.” 

Sneed said Caesars Entertainment, who owns Harrah’s Entertainment and has a management contract with the tribe, is telling its properties to expect 30 to 40 percent of its usual projected revenue.

Brooks Robinson, regional senior vice president and general manager for Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, announced a gradual reopening for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ two casinos to start May 18. It will first be opened to invited guests. 

Areas where social distancing can be practiced, such as the gaming floors and hotels, will be open. Areas like the spa and poker room will remain closed. Employees will get health screenings upon reporting for work and will be required to wear face masks. Tribal members will be able to access both casinos. 

“We are treating the safety of employees and guests with extreme seriousness,” Robinson said. 

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Joseph Martin is a former editor of the Cherokee One Feather in Cherokee, N.C., and a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.