CASPER — As the state and Wyoming counties begin to loosen restrictions on business amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Wind River Reservation tribes are continuing their aggressive approach to mitigate the spread of the virus.
Earlier this month, the two tribes extended until further notice a stay-at-home order for reservation residents they had originally implemented in April. They also instituted a 9 p.m. curfew, even as businesses like bars and restaurants begin to reopen or scale up operations in the county.
Tribal leaders say the measures are the best tool the tribes have in minimizing the number of cases among tribal citizens, a population tribal health officials and others have said are especially vulnerable to the virus’ serious side effects due to high rates of preexisting conditions and crowded housing conditions.
“I would say that is probably the most important piece that the tribes put together, is that stay-at-home order,” said Eastern Shoshone Business Council Vice-Chair Karen Snyder. “This is just something that we’ve got to do because we’ve never been down this path … we really don’t have any good guidance and what the next potential move is, other than we continue to look at keeping as many of our people safe and healthy that we possibly can.”
Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho leaders voted to implement a stay-at-home order in April, allowing citizens leave their homes to seek medical treatment or shop for groceries, medications and other necessary goods.
Employees working in essential occupations were also exempted.
The Wind River Tribal Court has also said that violators could be punished with a fine or jail time.
It’s unclear if authorities have used that option. The Wind River Police Department chief hasn’t responded to an emailed question about enforcement. But leaders have said that health officials have been able to attribute some new cases to gatherings and other violations of the order on the reservation.
On May 8, the Wind River Inter-Tribal Council said it had extended the order, adding the 9 p.m. curfew and continuing to discourage gatherings of 10 or more people.
The Inter-Tribal Council is made of both Wind River tribes’ business councils to jointly manage some tribal programs and services.
In passing the updated order, leaders said they are trying to prevent a wider outbreak that could overwhelm health care facilities and endanger tribal members who might already be vulnerable to the virus.
“Slowing the spread of COVID-19 is a responsibility we all share,” Northern Arapaho Business Council Chairman Lee Spoonhunter said in a Saturday press release. “As tribal members, it’s important to continue following health guidelines and staying home whenever possible. As tribal leaders, we’ll remain in contact with local, state and federal authorities, and continue to advocate for any available relief funds to assist our people in need.”
In his release, Spoonhunter announced a $19 million disbursement from the federal government that was part of the CARES Act relief package.
He also discussed the stay-at-home order.
Later on Saturday, state officials said an eighth person in Wyoming had died after contracting COVID-19. The Northern Arapaho Tribe then said that person was a tribal citizen, the fifth Arapaho to die after contracting the virus.
Northern Arapaho leaders have previously said that summer ceremonies may have to be canceled or postponed, but in a post on the tribe’s Facebook page earlier this week, it stated that ceremonies would go on as scheduled, albeit with some extra precautions.
For example, many participants would have to provide proof of COVID-19 testing to participate in the Spring Pipe Fast at the end of the month. Others would have to follow mask and social-distancing guidelines.
Requirements for the Rabbit Lodge and Sundance ceremonies in July haven’t been finalized.
“Recently, our Ceremonial Elders, the Northern Arapaho Business Council, along with the Wind River Cares Medical Staff met and discussed ways to ensure the safety of our people during our upcoming spring and summer ceremonies from COVID-19,” the tribe wrote in its Facebook post. “To be clear, our ceremonies will not be canceled or postponed and will take place as scheduled … These measures are put in place to ensure the safety, health and well-being of our people … and to work along with our prayers.”
Meanwhile, many Fremont County leaders have been clamoring for eased public health restrictions on area businesses, saying they have nearly irreparably harmed businesses.
Instead, they’ve contended, it should be left up to the individual to decide whether to venture outside of their home.
Tribal businesses like both tribes’ gaming enterprises remain closed.
As of Sunday evening, 202 of the state’s 566 confirmed cases were in Fremont County, the highest number of all Wyoming counties.
Health officials have said part of the reason for the high numbers is because of the tribes’ aggressive response, which includes mass testing, to the pandemic.
While Snyder said it feels isolating to be the only government in the area enforcing such strict measures, she knows tribal leaders are doing the right thing to protect tribal citizens the best they can. She added that she is sympathetic to businesses that are eager to begin making money again, but is worried about tribal members bringing the virus back to the reservation from surrounding communities and further spreading it.
“I feel like we’re on an isolated island,” Snyder said. “All of our surroundings are not doing the same. It just really feels like we’re isolated in our endeavors to try to contain (and) flatten the curve.”
She added that it’s unclear when the order might be lifted, but at a minimum, she would want to see testing capability – especially in surrounding communities like Riverton and Lander – increase and case numbers begin to level off.
Snyder said the reservation community has mostly responded well to the orders. Tribal leaders have made public pleas for tribal members, especially younger members, to obey them, but overall she said most understand the reasoning behind the order, adding that she often sees tribal members following guidelines like wearing cloth masks when in public.
“I think for the most part, our community’s been pretty respectful of what we’ve been trying to put in place, as far as having people stay at home,” she said. “But I would say, the kids are really restless. The kids are having a hard time accepting this and they want normal.”