Open? Closed? Looking for a unified pandemic strategy

S.F., a 16-year-old Greek graffiti artist, spray-paints a design, a woman wearing a face mask referring to protection against coronavirus, on the roof of his apartment block in Athens, Tuesday, March 17, 2020. Greece has imposed a wide range of public safety measures to try and contain the coronavirus outbreak, including school and store closures. The vast majority of people recover from the new coronavirus. According to the World Health Organization, most people recover in about two to six weeks, depending on the severity of the illness. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Indian Country Today

'Everything else takes a backseat to being alive'

Staff and wire reports

On one hand most tribal governments have been quick to respond. Tribal offices are closed and the governments are telling employees to practice social distancing.

Yet the casino world is divided. It really depends on the "where."

Tuesday the Navajo Nation announced its shutting down its four casinos. Salt River and Gila River did the same. But at the Desert Diamond casinos in Tucson and Glendale, it's business as usual. (There's even a tweet this week suggesting the buffet.)

"In these unprecedented times we are facing, I am seeing the best attributes of our O’otham himdak (values, way of life)," wrote Gila River Indian Community Stephen Roe Lewis. He said the community will take care of each other "Just as our ancestors did before us, by working together, caring for each other, supporting each other."

At Harrah's Ak-Chin Casino its Facebook post said the casino was practicing social distancing by turning off off every other slot machine, limited table games to three people, and removed some seats from the bingo hall. 

Yet people still touch the machines. The chips. And share their germs with customers and employees.

But closing is not an easy decision either. Some casinos (and other businesses) may never reopen.

A statement from the American Gaming Association said its $260 billion industry was at a “near standstill." The lobbying group said Congress should help the industry out because it employs some 1.8 million people.

While Atlantic City and in Maryland casinos have been shut down, some casinos in Las Vegas are still operating despite guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraging gatherings and events of more than 50 people or more.

And while some Oklahoma casinos continue to operate, a lawsuit between several tribes and the state over exclusivity fees is on hold.  “In light of conditions resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, the status/scheduling conference set for April 3 is hereby stricken to be reset at a later date,” U.S. District Judge Timothy DeGiusti wrote in an order.

A day from now that could change, too. 

No one knows how long this shutdown will last or how much it will hurt. But the U.S. economy is either sliding into a recession for the first time since 2009 or is already in one — a sudden victim of the coronavirus outbreak.

The vast changes deemed necessary to defeat the virus — people and companies no longer engaging with each other — are bringing everyday business to a halt and likely delivering a death blow to the longest economic expansion on record.

The interplay between the outbreak and the steps meant to vanquish it reveals a cruel paradox: The faster and more painfully that ordinary economic life shuts down, the faster the health crisis can be solved and the faster people and businesses may gain the confidence to return to normal life. Conversely, a prolonged period of fighting the virus would delay an economic rebound and imperil many small businesses.

Much, too, will depend on how swiftly and aggressively the Federal Reserve, Congress and the Trump administration deliver financial aid to tens of millions of economic victims — from hourly workers with no more income to suddenly furloughed employees to businesses with loans to pay but no customers. Solving the health crisis by shutting down the economy, though, will have to come first.

“The more rapidly you want to contain the virus, then the more severe the lockdown has to be and the more severe the disruption to economic activity is,’’ said Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics. “The hope is, the more severe the lockdown, the sharper the rebound will be.’’

The “Lockdown Paradox," he calls it.

Across the Southwest, from Santa Fe to Winslow, it's easy to find people denial. Many people about the virus. People laugh when someone refuses to shake hands. (Even a medical doctor offered his hand to a reporter. She politely refused.) A couple checking into a hotel seemed to have missed the news ... didn't hear about China, Italy or understanding about how quickly the virus is spreading.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told Indian Country Today that people will have "differing opinions." People will change their minds when COVID-19 is happening in their community. 

Nez points to the Navajo Nation's council session on Monday that was live streaming.  He said, "they took it like lightly and today many of the council delegates stated different message, total 180 because of our first and now our second confirmed case here on the Navajo Nation, so it's real."

"We're not immune to it," he said. COVID-19 can affect anyone.

As the nation struggles to reconcile itself to a new and spreading peril, it also struggles with a patchwork of rules that vary dizzyingly from place to place: For now, your life and lockdown in the shadow of COVID-19 depends on where you live.

Special store hours for the vulnerable

Since senior citizens and those with compromised immune systems are the high-risk demographic for COVID-19, grocery stores like Bashas’ Supermarkets, Whole Foods Market, Safeway, Alberston’s, and Smith’s will have special hours for them.

Starting March 18 Bashas’ Supermarkets on reservations, like the Navajo Nation, will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m. for elders 65 and older. Bashas’, Food City and AJ’s Fine Foods grocery stores outside the reservation will be open on Wednesdays from 5 a.m. to 6 a.m. for those 65 and older. Purchase limitations “will remain in effect," the company said.

Facebook users suggest taking wipes to disinfect the carts and baskets as there were no wipes or hand sanitizers available to use (or purchase) this morning at Bashas' in Window Rock, Arizona.

Whole Foods Market stores in the U.S. and Canada are opening one hour earlier before the public for shoppers 60 and older starting March 18.

Albertsons, which owns Safeway, asked customers to reserve the time of every Tuesday and Thursday from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m. for vulnerable shoppers. Check your local store hours.

Multiple reports say that Smith’s grocery stores are dedicating one hour to shoppers 60 and older. They can shop on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. Other shoppers can start shopping after this one hour. 

Decisions, decisions

In some places, many ordinary Americans are making public health choices, searching their own conscience and deciding for themselves what risk they're willing to endure. In others, government has made at least some of those decisions.

Ohio canceled its presidential primary to avoid crowds, but the polls opened Tuesday morning in Florida, Illinois and Arizona. Bars in some states prepared for hordes of St. Patrick's Day revelers, while elsewhere others are stacking the stools up on tables and locking the doors. 

Spring breakers are partying by the hundreds on some beaches, while police are sweeping others, ordering people away through loud speakers. 

The federal government on Monday urged Americans not to gather in groups of 10 or more and asked older people to stay home, as the number of infections in the U.S. climbed to more than 4,500, with at least 88 deaths. But hard rules have been left up to the states, creating what New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo derided as a "hodgepodge." 

Jennifer Dykstra, the owner of a restaurant called Kitchen House in rural Michigan, cried all weekend, paralyzed to choose which prospect seemed more terrifying. 

She could close her restaurant, potentially putting herself out of business and rendering her 25 employees unemployed. Or she could stay open, risking their health and that of their customers, many of them old friends and regulars, who'd suddenly stopped shaking hands on their way in and started instead making nervous jokes about preferring tables in the virus-free section. 

"It's been lurking in the room, weighing heavily on us: what is the right answer, what is the right thing to do?" she said. Then Michigan announced Monday afternoon that all bars and restaurants must close to dine-in customers: "I'm relieved that the decision was made for us," Dykstra said. 

Even as some states made stunning announcements — 7 million people in the San Francisco area were put on a near-total lock-down — life carried on in others. 

Jade Noble looked out from behind her Phoenix bar, Linger Longer Lounge, packed with people. They were mostly young, but she imagined them all going home to older, more vulnerable relatives and neighbors. She watched one person walk up to the water cooler and put the mouth of their bottle right up to the spigot. 

"We need less people in here," she thought this weekend. She considered the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control, begging people to stay away from each other to flatten the curve — the exponential spread of the virus. "We need to take ourselves out of that equation," she decided. So the Linger Longer Lounge closed its doors, despite no mandate from the state or city. 

In Oklahoma, Scott Wagoner, the co-owner of a furniture store in Oklahoma City, also decided to shut down his store, despite not being ordered by the state to do so. Most of his employees, he said, are parents and grandparents, and he felt they could do their part to stop the spread. 

"It's a very tough decision, people's lives and livelihoods are at stake," said Gareth O'Sullivan, who owns a pub called Mac McGee in Decatur, Georgia, also among the states that has not yet instituted a statewide rule. 

Mac McGee has been awaiting word from authorities. In the meantime, tables and bar stools have been spread 6 feet apart. Employees are wearing gloves and obsessively sanitizing every surface. But as the death toll ticked up and warnings became more dire, O'Sullivan began to feel like some parts of this were totally out of his control. The crowd is starting to thin, he said, as reality sank in. 

If the government doesn't weigh in soon, he'll probably close on his own. The stress, he said, is becoming too much to bear. 

While Ohio postponed its election, other states were opening the polls, with an assortment of methods to try keeping voters safe. 

Officials in Cook County, Illinois, encourage poll workers to use blue painter's tape to to mark the floor every six feet so voters can keep their distance while waiting in line. In Florida, Orange County Election Supervisor Bill Cowles said voters are being allowed to bring wipes to clean their voting booths, face masks and their own pens to mark their ballots. Poll workers have been given supplies to wipe down counters. 

Nick Campbell, went with his wife and their 11-year-old daughter to vote in the Tampa suburb of Riverview, armed with masks and gloves. But when they saw there were no other voters, they opted to don only the gloves. They were in and out within minutes. 

"I didn't touch anything. It was a very sterile operation," he said. 

But others chose to stay away. 

Jonathan Castoire, a Broward County telecommunications engineer, said he couldn't vote Tuesday because he has multiple sclerosis and his voting station is in a senior center. He felt that would be too dangerous. He said he feels like he has been given "an ultimatum" to choose between his health and his right to vote. "That's not right," he said.

Uncertainty and frustration extends even to beaches. In Florida, beaches on the Gulf coast near Tampa intend to stay open until state emergency officials mandate closures. Local news reports showed Clearwater Beach flooded with spring breakers on Monday. But in Puerto Rico, sirens blared across the busiest beaches Monday as police cleared hundreds of tourists. Using loudspeakers, officers in patrol cars ordered people away: "Please stay at home. Governor's executive orders. The beach is closed."

"Why would I get sick at the beach? I'm not going to be touching anything," said 46-year-old David Zimmer of Richmond, Minnesota, as he joined a group of family and friends flip-flopping their way to a beach that police had driven through just an hour before to empty it out. Other tourists heeded the warnings and shuffled back to their hotels, many carrying take-out meals before locking themselves in.

As state after state on Monday announced they'd be shutting movie theaters, bars, restaurants museums and all non-essential business, others were still preparing for a party. 

In Savannah, Georgia, bar owner Jessica Walden said she was trying to just break even with far fewer customers that she's used to during St. Patrick's Day celebrations. City officials this year canceled the city's massive parade, but allowed bars and restaurants to remain open. 

Walden, who co-owns Bay Street Blues with her mother, said few weekend guests seemed concerned about the pandemic. The bar's Saturday crowd reached a capacity of 144 patrons several times. They had hand sanitizer posted in two spots on the bar and at the front door, and other than people pumping copious amounts into their palms, the party seemed to go on uninterrupted. Closing down during the most lucrative week of the year would crippled her business, she said, and she's not that worried. 

"I just at this time don't have any concerns," she said. "Maybe I'm naive. Everybody keeps saying it's like the flu." 

But in places where the government has mandated closures, residents seemed resigned to waiting it out inside. In Louisville, Kentucky, people bought wine by the case. 

Hours after the governor announced all bars and restaurants would close at 5 p.m. Monday, Danny Flanigan and Jennie Mulhall scrapped their plans to eat fast food in the car. They opted instead for lunch at their favorite restaurant, the Bristol. 

"We want to support you one more time while we still can," he told the hostess as they walked inside. Flanigan and Mulhall said that over the last week, they have been trying to live some abridged version of their normal lives. He's a musician and played a small show over the weekend, and it felt different, like people were aware it would be the last hurrah for awhile. 

"In times like this, everything else takes a backseat to being alive," Flanigan said. Maybe six months from now, we'll all laugh and say 'oh, remember all that stuff we couldn't do when we were stuck inside.' But we won't be laughing if we don't take these precautions and people die." 

Indian Country Today - small phone logo

The Associated Press and Indian Country Today contributed to this report. 

Comments

News

FEATURED
COMMUNITY