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Navajo Nation To Reopen 2 Casinos, Hold Day Of Prayer For COVID-19 Victims

Two casinos on the Navajo Nation will reopen this week as the tribe eases its restrictions on businesses amid a downturn in coronavirus cases and high rates of vaccination.

As new COVID-19 cases remain low on the Navajo Nation, tribal President Jonathan Nez says businesses will begin to reopen at a reduced capacity. However, he says people should remain cautious since not everyone has been vaccinated yet.

"We’re going to slowly transition but if there is some spikes or an outbreak again we’re going to turn around and put some of those measures back in place so that we can gain control,” Nez said.

On Friday, Nez says they will honor the over 1,200 residents lost to COVID-19 with a virtual day of prayer. It will feature a speech from Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

He also says those reopening businesses will only serve Navajo Nation residents for now. 

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise has four casinos but will open only two Friday and limit patrons to those who live on the vast reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

The enterprise will keep Fire Rock east of Gallup, New Mexico, and Northern Edge in Farmington, New Mexico, open for two weeks before determining whether to reopen two other casinos — one in northwestern New Mexico and the other east of Flagstaff.

“What it's intended to do is demonstrate that all our safety protocols, which we know are very, very comprehensive, are in place, the program is going to work and keep everyone safe, and then we can open it to a broader audience later,” Brian Parrish, the enterprise's interim chief executive, said Wednesday.

The casinos will operate at 25% capacity with no food or drink services and only within the time allowed by the tribe's nightly curfew. All employees must test negative for COVID-19 before they return to work and be retested at least every two weeks.

Service lights on the slot machines will let customers request that the machines be sanitized.

Smoking will be allowed only in designated outdoor areas. Social distancing will be enforced throughout the properties.

The casinos also are setting aside a couple of hours on Tuesday and Wednesday mornings for elderly patrons.

Customers must wear masks, get their temperatures checked and provide contact information if they needed to be reached later. Handheld devices will be used to swipe driver's licenses to ensure customers live on the reservation, Parrish said. That policy is in accordance with tribal legislation that restricts non-resident travel on the reservation.

Jordan Schermerhorn, a senior research associate at Georgetown University’s Center for Global Health Science and Security, has been tracking pandemic response policies. She said the Navajo Nation has taken a more cautious approach than neighboring states in reopening with a stricter tiered system.

The tribe smartly used data and waited until more than 80% of the residents on the reservation had received at least one dose of the vaccine before announcing plans for a soft reopening, Schermerhorn said.

“I’m confident they will re-restrict if necessary — which I can’t say about Texas where I am or frankly anywhere else in the country,” Schermerhorn wrote in an email. “I really do think they’re leading the country in reopening the right way.”

Businesses on the reservation that want to reopen must submit a plan to the tribe's Division of Economic Development detailing safety precautions. So far, more than two dozen businesses have been approved to reopen, said tribal spokesman Jared Touchin.

The Navajo Nation reported its first case of the coronavirus a year ago, on March 17, 2020. The tribe is planning a virtual day of prayer Friday to remember those who have died and been infected by the virus.

The tribe reported 10 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday and three more deaths, bringing the total number of cases to 29,968 and 1,222 deaths.

“We recognize the hardships, sacrifices and losses that our people continue to endure and we pray for protection and recovery from COVID-19, and we thank our health care workers and frontline workers who put themselves in harm’s way to help our Navajo people to save countless lives,” Nez said in a statement.

Jill Ryan joined KJZZ in 2020 as a morning reporter, and she is currently a field correspondent and Morning Edition producer.