Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, whose roughly 350,000-member tribe has been devastated by 15 deaths from COVID-19 and nearly 400 positive cases, is implementing a 57-hour curfew this weekend in hopes of blunting the disease’s spread.

Nez, the leader of the nation’s largest Native American tribe, spread out over three states and 27,000 square miles, said the wide swath of the disease mandates the unusual action — and a willingness to enforce the curfew.

“One death is way too many,” Nez said. “This is a public health emergency.”

The unprecedented curfew is scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Friday and will continue until 5 a.m. Monday, Nez said. He added the curfew will be enforced by Navajo police, who will set up checkpoints at roads, patrol neighborhoods and use their loudspeakers to remind residents to stay indoors.

Nez’s communication director, Jared Touchin, said those police officers can issue citations for violations with penalties including fines of up to $1,000 and/or 30 days in jail.

If the curfew doesn’t produce the intended effect of getting people to stay at home, Nez said he will consider “a full lockdown” for a longer period of time.

The Navajo Nation had recently begun nightly curfews beginning at 8 p.m. and lasting until 5 a.m. the next morning. But this weekend, he said “we’re telling everyone, ‘Hunker down; the safest place to be is at home.’ ”

Nez said the Navajos have already shut down their tourist sites and pretty much closed off access to their land as well.

“We are a sovereign nation,” Nez said. “We are our own government. We will determine what is best for everyone on our nation, and that includes nonmembers.”

He said if the weekendlong curfew shows any signs of being successful, he hopes state leaders from around the country will consider following his lead, given that COVID-19 cases and the death toll continue to rise. In New Mexico, the spread of the disease is being felt on other tribal lands, including Zia and San Felipe pueblos, where the state Department of Health announced dozens of new cases Tuesday.

Tripp Stelnicki, spokesman for Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, said Tuesday her administration is checking with legal counsel on whether she has the power to enact a similar measure for a weekend curfew.

He said the governor is “willing to consider and enact any and all mechanisms for slowing and stopping the spread of this virus, particularly if the actions we’ve taken so far are not heeded or are flouted by too many New Mexicans who are continuing to congregate, go out in groups [and] put themselves, their families, their communities and state health care workers and first responders at greater risk.

“In short, nothing within the governor’s power is off the table.”

Nez said many people on Navajo Nation land already face a number of challenges that make them particularly susceptible to COVID-19.

Many have no running water, he said, making proper hand-washing — one of several proactive measures health officials say helps stem the spread of the virus — nearly impossible.

In addition, many Navajos live in isolated, remote locales far from medical facilities, are impoverished or suffer from diabetes, a medical condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19.

Nez said some 2,100 members of the Navajo Nation have tested negative for the virus.

State Sen. Shannon Pinto, D-Gallup, said she thinks the weekend curfew is a good idea but wonders if it will be long enough to make a difference.

She also voiced concerns there are not enough tribal police officers to strictly enforce it.

Pinto said as she drove around Gallup on Tuesday, she saw people who did not understand the need to social distance. She saw lines of people waiting outside the local Walmart, with few wearing masks or gloves and many standing too close together.

“Even in some of the smaller convenience stores, where there were three or four employees in the store, no one was wearing masks,” she said. “I still see people taking children into store, no masks, no gloves. It seems not enough people are hearing the message.”

Stepping outside his office in Window Rock, Ariz., just after dusk Monday, Nez said he has hope people will soon heed the call. As he spoke, he said he had never “experienced such quietness” based on the nightly curfew that is in place.

“Nobody on the roads,” he said. “It’s just quiet out here, and it’s quiet all over on the Navajo Nation because of the curfew.

“I have to stay positive. If I don’t … well, that never crosses my mind.”

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.

(2) comments

Chris Morgan

From what I read, it seems that a curfew is far beyond the mandates currently in place for Santa Fe. I agree, more could be done, but this article is referencing far more a more extreme form of isolation. I don't know how long it would take for it to be effective, so you might be correct that 57 hours is too short. Who knows..

Stefanie Beninato

Hasn't the leadership on the Navajo Nation been listening? A shut down of 57 hours is a joke. It needs to be for at least 2 weeks while testing is going on. It sounds like the leadership has failed to educate people about social distancing etc.

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