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Havasupai Ill Equipped To Handle COVID-19, Close Canyon

Down at the bottom of the Grand Canyon the most isolated Native American tribe in the lower 48 states lacks the resources needed to deal with a pandemic. If the small community was struck with COVID-19, tribal leaders say it would be devastating.

To get to Supai Village you must take a helicopter, ride a horse or walk down an eight-mile-long trail.

Chairwoman Evangeline Kissoon said the village clinic has only one doctor and two nurses, no hospital beds or equipment to deal with the coronavirus should it breach the canyon.

"Most of our households are multifamily," Kissoon said. "We are a social community but our community is doing very well at really practicing the social distancing. We all have a little bit of fear in us."

On March 16, the Havasupai closed the scenic canyon to visitors. The tribe has no known coronavirus cases and they plan to keep it that way.

In the meantime Vice chairman Matthew Putesoy Sr. says that leaves many people out of work. Seventy five percent of the tribe's jobs are tied to tourism.

"The tribe depends on tourism," Putesoy said. "And it's the backbone of our economy. With this pandemic we're losing a good percentage of our revenue. That's taken a toll on us."

Thousands of visitors who made campground reservations for this season are rebooking for 2021. That means it will take a while to recover economically. About 40,000 tourists a year visit the popular waterfalls in Havasu Canyon.

The Havasupai plan to apply for the federal stimulus dollars but Putesoy realizes they're competing with more than 500 other tribes. They're also working with Arizona's congressional delegation, state, and county leaders, but the chairwoman says it's not enough.

The Havasupai face limitations that other tribes don't because of their location in the Grand Canyon.

"We are the most restricted tribe in the United States in terms of mining, public hunting, economic development," Putesoy said. "The tribe can't develop any hotels or casinos on the rim of the canyon."

The Havasupai hope to allow visitors back in by early summer.

→  Read The Latest News On The Coronavirus Disease 

Laurel Morales was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2011 to 2020.