As COVID-19 pandemic enters a new phase, Indian nations must stand together

Ernest L. Stevens Jr., Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association

No corner of our nation has been spared, but Indian Country has been especially hard hit from both a public health and economic standpoint

Ernest Stevens, Jr.

Chairman, National Indian Gaming Association

The Creator brings us the sunlight of a new day and the Spring brings us new life. Mother Earth gives us our ground to walk on and we owe the Earth a duty of caring with a vision for our children, our grandchildren and the future. As we all know, that future holds great uncertainty.

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken 90,000 American lives, infected more than 1.5 million individuals, and has shaken our health care systems to their core. As all forms of government work to slow and stop the spread of the virus, our economies have been shuttered. More than 36 million Americans have been put out of work, and tribal, state, and local government budgets have been devastated.

No corner of our nation has been spared, but Indian Country has been especially hard hit from both a public health and economic standpoint.

Knowing that prior pandemics, such as the Spanish Influenza and H1N1 virus, inflicted death and trauma on tribal communities at rates four times the national average, tribal leaders had grave concerns. Our Indian nations took swift action in response to the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States. In early March, tribal leaders began temporary suspension of Indian gaming and hospitality operations to help slow and stop the spread of the coronavirus and for the safety of employees, guests, and communities. Tribes have since gone beyond operation suspension by initiating highway checkpoints, community curfews, suspending non-essential travel to stem the tide of the Coronavirus.

Despite our strong response, COVID-19 is wreaking the extreme damage on tribal communities today as we experienced with past pandemics.

While all of our tribes throughout the Nation have been impacted by COVD-19, tribes in the southwest region are feeling greater consequences of the pandemic. The Navajo Nation has the highest rate of positive coronavirus cases per capita in the United States. In New Mexico, as of last week, Navajo Nation citizens represented 2,194 of the State’s 5,069 coronavirus cases. Several of the Pueblos have also suffered large outbreaks of the virus, which has taken a toll on all of New Mexico’s 23 Native Nations. While Native Americans make up 11% of the State’s population, tribal citizens make up nearly 60% of COVID-positive test cases, and 50% COVID-related deaths.

COVID-19 is lying bare the health care and infrastructure disparities that have existed in Indian Country for decades. Far too many Native Americans are susceptible to this virus because of pre-existing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, and asthma. The lack of housing on Indian lands, with multiple generations of families living under one roof, has been a proven trigger to the spread. The lack of clean running water and internet service, basic amenities that simply do not exist in many Native communities, makes it harder to stop the spread of the virus and impossible for Native youth to receive social and educational services.

In addition to the direct health threats, the pandemic is inflicting economic havoc. The coronavirus has triggered the worst unemployment crisis the history of our nation, with more than 36 million Americans filing for unemployment. Indian Country is no exception. Tribal government economies are under unique pressure, and the ripple effects are being felt throughout much of rural America.

For more than 240 Native Nations, tribal government economies are anchored by Indian gaming operations. Tribes do not collect tax revenues like state and local governments. Instead, many tribes have established Indian gaming and other tribal government-owned enterprises to raise revenue for essential community services.

For many tribes, Indian gaming is first and foremost about jobs. In 2019, Indian gaming generated over 312,000 direct American jobs, an additional 468,000 indirect jobs, and $40 billion in Tribal Government revenue. For more than two months now, COVID-19 has forced a temporary suspension of Indian Country’s economic engines.

Despite suspending enterprise operations, examples of goodwill prevailed throughout Indian Country. Many tribes have retained employees and many others extended health insurance coverage. Just as we did during the Great Recession of a decade ago, many tribes are reaching out to help our neighbors by providing food, medical supplies, and other donations to help us all get through this crisis.

Unlike the Great Recession when our doors remained opened, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced our doors closed. While state and local government tax revenues have lost on average 20% of their tax revenue during the stay-at-home orders, Indian Country’s revenue base has reduced to zero.

Tribal governments nationwide continue to follow the counsel of public health experts by seeking increased testing, tracing, treatment, and isolation of those exposed. After more than two months of operation closures, some tribes are coordinating with gaming regulators and health experts to cautiously resume operations—keeping the health and safety of our communities and our visitors at top of mind.

However, we know that our cautious resumption of operations and eventual economic recovery from this pandemic will, by necessity, be slower.

State and local governments are pressing the federal government to take swift action to help prevent significant cuts that will devastate essential state and local services. Indian tribes are likewise looking to Congress and the Administration for help to stem the economic impacts of the coronavirus, and speed America’s recovery.

Despite its disjointed implementation, the CARES Act provided some initial relief. More must be done to improve the CARES Act and provide more resources to help Indian Country through this crisis.

Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the HEROES Act, the fourth legislative package designed to meet the challenges posed by COVID-19.

A centerpiece of the HEROES Act from Indian Country’s perspective is additional funding for the Coronavirus Relief Fund (CRF). The Act provides $500 billion for States, $375 billion for Counties, $20 billion for Tribal Governments, and $20 billion for Territories. The bill also makes important changes to the CRF, by making funding more flexible, permitting all governments to use CRF funds to replace lost revenues. Importantly, the bill also clarifies that the tribal portion of the CRF funding will only go to Tribal Governments, recognizing the “inherent sovereignty” at the heart of our Indian nations and tribal membership as a measure of the political status of our Native peoples as tribal citizens. Tribal Governments urgently need these additional Coronavirus Relief Funds.

The HEROES Act provides supplemental appropriations of approximately $3 billion for Indian health care, housing, social services, and BIA programs designed to help tribes serve their communities. The HEROES Act is a strong, much needed response to the National COVID-19 Public Health Emergency and Economic Crisis hitting Indian Country and America so hard.

Senate leaders expressed doubt that the next package of COVID-related legislation will move prior to Memorial Day, but that’s just around the corner.

Tribal leaders and our first responders have and continue to take extraordinary measures to stop the coronavirus. Despite their efforts, and because of historic inequities that have existed for decades, the virus is inflicting disproportionate damage on Native health and our economies. While the CARES Act provided some initial relief, Congress and the Administration must do more. The next relief package must be better tailored to meet the unprecedented health care and economic impacts of the virus on Indian Country. We will continue to do our part, and by standing together, we will get through this crisis.

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