During a special session on June 3, the Navajo Nation Council voted unanimously to reopen tribal parks to the public at full capacity, including popular destinations such as Monument Valley and Four Corners Monument near Moab. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez vetoed the legislation, citing concerns about the spread of COVID-19 and its variants, but hopes to reopen the parks at half-capacity.
Paul Begay sponsored the legislation to fully reopen the tribal parks, which was introduced on April 19, citing the negative economic effect park closures have had on Navajo-owned tourist businesses. The Navajo Department of Health reported no new confirmed COVID-19 cases since June 21, though the reservation remains in the yellow code — moderate to low restrictions — according to Navajo Reopening. The yellow code allows half of maximum capacity for most businesses.
“Our thought as Council delegate is, number one, help our people,” said Begay at the council’s June 10 meeting. “This is a prime example of a situation of where we can help our people to get out of the hole and get back on their feet.”
The council voted 23-0 to reopen all tribal parks, the Navajo Nation Museum and the Navajo Nation Zoo at 100% capacity in time for summer, a popular tourist season. Navajo Department of Health Director Jill Jim said that she is concerned about the Delta variant of COVID-19, already spreading to the western United States.
“If the cases get high again, it’s a threat on the Navajo people and livelihood to make sure COVID-19 doesn’t surge again,” said Jim. “Our best defense is that we issue out public health emergency to protect the Navajo people.”
Another concern for Nez is the inability to track and gather COVID-19 information and data from visitors to the Navajo Nation’s parks. “If we allow visitors into our Nation at 100-percent, we don’t know where they are coming from and if they are fully vaccinated, but our mask mandate will help to keep people safe,” read a press release from President Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer on June 18.
Nez and Lizer now seek a special session of the Navajo Nation Council to discuss Resolution CMA-16-20, which closed all tribal parks and roads to visitors in March 2020. If the resolution is repealed, the Navajo Department of Health can issue a public health emergency order to open the parks at half capacity, consistent with the yellow code. A new public health order would allow park managers to enforce a mask mandate for all Navajo Nation residents and visitors.
“Based on the data and recommendations of our public health experts, we feel that opening parks to everyone at 50 percent capacity is feasible,” stated Nez in the June 18 press release. “That will allow us to monitor the impacts of reopening parks at limited capacity and consider gradually increasing that capacity level from there.”
President Nez and Navajo health officials hope to roll out a steady, gradual reopening of the Navajo reservation over the summer and into the fall.