Navajo Nation extends weekend lockdowns as virus cases rise

The Navajo Nation is extending its weekend lockdowns to combat the spread of the coronavirus on the vast Native American reservation that lies in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- The Navajo Nation has extended its weekend lockdowns preventing people from leaving their homes, except in emergencies, on the vast expanse of land that has been harder hit by the coronavirus than any other Native American reservation in the U.S.

Jessie Valdez, who lives in Nageezi on the New Mexico portion of the reservation, and her grandchildren are ready. They're stocked up on food and other supplies, and plan on baking, cooking, watching movies and, “of course, a lot of cleaning."

“Staying home, staying away from anybody, anything will help,” she said Wednesday. “I don't know how long this virus is going to be around. We don't know."

The tribe first put in place the 8 p.m. Friday to 5 a.m. Monday lockdown last weekend for the reservation that lies in parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and is larger than the state of West Virginia. It came after a nightly curfew was imposed to keep people at home from dusk to dawn during the week.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said Wednesday he was thankful most people are adhering to public health orders, but not everyone is complying.

“It's very disheartening to receive reports of many people going out into the public today and traveling to border towns, most due to the federal stimulus funds that our people are beginning to receive,” he said a day after announcing weekend lockdowns would continue.

The number of coronavirus cases on the Navajo reservation and border towns rose to 921 on Wednesday, with 38 deaths. About 175,000 people live on the Navajo Nation, and Nez said he was working to ensure non-essential business would close as ordered.

Tribal police enforced the weekend lockdown by setting up checkpoints in Navajo communities. They issued more than 100 criminal nuisance citations for violating it on Friday and Saturday, Navajo Nation police spokeswoman Christina Tsosie said.

Enforcement of the lockdown over Easter weekend was the largest coordinated effort ever for the department, Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said.

“We're asking everyone to comply so we don't have to write any tickets,” he said.

Nate Sandoval spent Wednesday in Albuquerque, New Mexico, buying meat and other groceries for his family and neighbors back home in the Navajo community of To'hajiilee. He prefers remote areas to the city and said his 10-year-old daughter has plenty to do over the weekend — play with her dogs, basketball, archery.

But Sandoval said the lockdown would be more effective if roadblocks were better placed within the community. During the last lockdown, he said residents easily bypassed a single checkpoint, hit the dirt roads and left.

“There were no cops driving around to check on people who literally were driving around the reservation,” he said.

The citations for violating the lockdown carry possible fines of up to $1,000 and 30 days in jail. The lockdowns and curfews apply to tribal and non-tribal members, including those who live or operate businesses on sections of non-reservation land within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation.

Essential employees, such as health care workers, law enforcement and emergency responders, are exempt from the restrictions but must be able to provide official identification and a letter from their employers.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Nez said the number of COVID-19 cases is expected to increase as the tribe receives test kits that will more quickly deliver results.

Among those infected on the reservation are nine people who work for the police department, tribal officials said.