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Cherokee announces preemptive border closure

As of press time there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the Qualla Boundary, but the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians isn’t waiting until the disease arrives to take drastic steps preventing its spread. 

A series of executive orders Principal Chief Richard Sneed issued over the past week have closed the Boundary’s borders to non-citizens and non-residents, with some narrow exceptions offered; shut down all non-critical tribal operations and offices for two weeks; ordered all restaurant dining rooms and non-essential businesses closed; issued a stay-at-home order to all residents; prohibited gatherings of 10 or more people and closed public spaces such as trails, playgrounds and picnic areas. Additionally, Sneed issued an order requiring Food Lion to limit purchases of meat, sanitizing products and paper products to two per customer and to dedicate the 7 to 8 a.m. shopping hour to people ages 59 and older. Schools have been closed since March 16.

On March 18, Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos began a two-week closure, the first ever in its 23-year history. The casinos in Cherokee and Murphy supply the lion’s share of revenue for the tribal budget and also provide twice-yearly per capita payments to tribal members. 

These orders have caused significant disruption in the community, as they have across the nation in other jurisdictions that have taken similar measures to combat the spread of the virus. However, Sneed said he has no doubt the orders are needed and in the community’s best interest. 

“The data supports that these measures, although they may seem aggressive, are absolutely necessary,” Sneed said during a videotaped roundtable discussion that also included Cherokee Indian Hospital CEO Casey Cooper and Director of Public Health and Human Services Vickie Bradley. “At this point there’s no vaccine at all, so social distancing, washing our hands — things that seem like minor things, that seem like how can that really help — that’s our only defense at this point. That and what are deemed as aggressive measures. Looking at the data, the decision was easy to make.”

Perhaps the most aggressive of the new measures is the closure of Cherokee’s borders. All roads into the Qualla Boundary are now closed except for U.S. 441 and U.S. 19. These entry points are controlled by the Cherokee Indian Police Department. Enrolled members, first descendents and Boundary residents will be allowed to come and go but are advised to remain on the Boundary except when it’s necessary to leave for work, groceries or medical services. They will have to show a tribal enrollment card or N.C. drivers license showing residency on the boundary to enter — non-enrolled residents will also have to show an official memo from the EBCI 911 office stating their place of residency. 

Entrance will also be provided to non-enrolled employees of essential services and businesses, as well as delivery services. These people will not be permitted to shop for groceries or retail items during their time on the Boundary but may purchase fuel and drive-thru meals. Photo ID and proof of employment or business ownership will also be required. 

While no confirmed cases have been documented on Cherokee lands as of now, these preemptive measures are necessary, especially given the hospital’s lack of capacity to deal with an onslaught of COVID-19 cases, said Cooper. 

“We have no ICU beds and no ventilators at the Cherokee Hospital, so we will be very dependent on our partners in the region to help us care for the severely ill,” he said. 

With the COVID-19 crisis affecting communities across the region and country, other area hospitals are also likely to face shortages, thereby limiting their ability to assist Cherokee. While about 80 percent of people with COVID-19 are able to recover without hospitalization, the remaining 20 percent will be severely ill, said Cooper — there’s really no middle ground. 

“Folks that are affected by it will be folks that are more vulnerable, and they will need a very high level of care, meaning ICUs and ventilators,” he said. “All of the forecasts show that if we don’t act aggressively and early and proactively to slow the spread, we will easily exceed the total number of beds and ventilators that are available in Western North Carolina.”

As of Monday morning, March 23, the Cherokee hospital had tested 23 patients total for COVID-19, said Cooper. Nine of the tests have come back negative, with results pending for the remainder. The supply of tests is sufficient as long as the hospital follows Centers for Disease Control guidelines to test only those patients who have symptoms, but that strategy does not help find the asymptomatic patients who are spreading the virus through the community. 

While tribal offices are closed, employees who were sent home will still receive pay and those whose services are deemed critical will receive double pay as they continue to work. However, Sneed urges tribal employees who are not working to stay home and avoid the urge to travel. 

The closure of tribal operations went into effect March 23 and will continue indefinitely — Sneed said that, while the tribe is fortunate to have the financial resources to continue paying its workforce, that supply is not infinite. Communications Director Chris McCoy, who moderated the roundtable, asked Sneed how long the tribe could continue to pay its employees under current conditions. 

“Because of our conservative budgeting, we have a surplus right now that we are able to continue to pay our employees, but again there’s not an infinite supply,” Sneed replied. “Our secretary of the treasury and our finance team continues to forecast, and fortunately for now and for the time being, we’re going to be just fine, so that’s good news.”

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