Dave Kolpack
Associated Press

FARGO, N.D. — The Spirit Lake Nation in northeastern North Dakota took measures in the spring to minimize the spread of the coronavirus, including the financially painful decision to close the casino where many tribal members work. COVID-19 numbers stayed relatively low.

Then residents became complacent and attended gatherings over the July Fourth weekend, translating into a spike in cases, tribal officials said. The reservation's primary county, Benson County, has had the most confirmed new cases per capita in the state in the last two weeks, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

Similar increases are being reported among other tribes in North Dakota, state Indian Affairs Commissioner Scott Davis said.

"People are just getting relaxed, thinking things are fine. And here we are, back to square one with the tribes," Davis said. "It's really concerning."

It has left Spirit Lake Chairman Douglas Yankton and other tribal leaders mulling difficult decisions. Do they shut down the casino again? Do they impose a stay-at-home order for all residents? Either could devastate the tribal economy and force individuals into dire living conditions or onto the streets.

Yankton said the two-month closure of the casino earlier this year would have been a disaster if not for federal unemployment assistance. With Congress stuck in limbo over a new stimulus package, many tribal members are going to work despite the virus risks.

"It's really challenging to determine what to do," Yankton said. "Some businesses, we just really can't afford to shut down. People are going to feel that when it comes time to pay bills and the tribe as a whole will feel the impacts."

Yankton and leaders from other tribes have been taking other steps to slow the spread of the virus. Spirit Lake is believed to be the first municipality in the state to issue a mask mandate and the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa followed suit. Other tribes have instituted quarantine and curfew orders.

At Spirit Lake, people who have tested positive are told that they and their household — no matter how large — must quarantine at home. The tribe has rented hotel rooms in nearby Devils Lake and at its casino for quarantine purposes, and is looking at other sites where people who have been exposed to the virus could stay for 14 days.

The tribes have also ramped up testing. Recent mass COVID-19 screenings at Spirit Lake and the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation each drew nearly 1,000 people. Spirit Lake has enlisted help from nearby universities for contact tracing to ease the pressure on tribal health services, Yankton said.

North Dakota health officials on Friday reported 150 new virus cases and one new death, a man in his 40s with underlying health conditions from Benson County. The primary counties where the state's five federally recognized tribes are located all ranked in the top 20 for the number of virus cases per capita in the last two weeks.

Davis said tribal leaders are taking the virus seriously and that he has warned them to pace themselves because the pandemic will probably last a long time.

"This spike is just another wake-up call for the tribes that, hey, we need to get back to what we're doing right. Because our numbers were low," Davis said. "It has really caused the tribes to make decisions on economics, health care, schools. I'm glad our tribes are very fearful of this virus, especially because of the care disparities and how rural we are."

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