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Coping with COVID-19: Western Agency takes steps to stop the spread

By Krista Allen
Special to the Times


While a number of cities and towns across the country have taken significant steps to keep people at home in a desperate bid to stem the novel coronavirus, officials of Western Navajo chapters are taking safety measures.

In Tuba City, officials shuttered the flea market. Ts’ahbiikin Chapter started the “TBK COVID-19 Team” to help hinder the spread of COVID-19.

In the border town of Page, meanwhile, it’s business as usual but with appeals for “common sense.”

Tónaneesdizí Local Government on March 10 took aggressive steps to curb transmission of the deadly COVID-19 by canceling the 2020 Spring Festival, which includes the Tuba City Bike Race, a half marathon, country dances, and concerts.

“The safety and well-being of our community is of the utmost importance,” said Mike Sixkiller, community events coordinator and the Western Navajo Fair manager. “Prevention is vital toward protecting our loved ones, including those most vulnerable to the virus.”

Sixkiller said cancelling the festival wasn’t an easy decision to make, but it was the right move to protect the thousands of Western families who take part in the festival every year.

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“We are doing our part to fight the potential spread of this virus,” he said.

On March 12, Tónaneesdizí Local Government officials enacted sweeping measures to try to slow the spread even more by closing the Friday Tuba City Flea Market until further notice. The daily flea market though is still open, according to vendors.

“We are making this concern our highest priority to ensure that all our community members are protected,” Gerald Keetso and Durann Begay wrote in a statement. Keetso is the Tónaneesdizí Chapter president and Begay is the executive manager. “We apologize for any inconvenience, but the safety of our community is our main priority and minimizing any possibility of exposure to COVID-19 is vital toward fighting this outbreak.”

In LeChee, tour guides at each of the Diné tour operations went home after the Lake Powell Tribal Park shut down, impacting Ken’s Tours, Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon Tours, Carolene Ekis’ Antelope Canyon Tours, Tá’dídíín Tours’ Antelope Canyon X, and Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours.

“Some (tour guides) are spending time with family and resting,” said Joshua Benally, director of marketing for Dixie Ellis. “This is all temporary, so when (the parks reopen), they’ll be really busy. We are optimistic about the situation.”

Only the tour guides have gone home, said Benally, adding that all of Dixie Ellis’s business staff are still working.

“Everyone is still employed,” Benally said, “however, we are cancelling reservations and rebooking for later on in the year.”

Next door at Ken’s Tours, the 90 employees — a majority of whom are Diné — are also still on the payroll, said Michelle Monroe, the human resource director for her family’s business.

“We kind of anticipated they would be closing once we started seeing events being shut down and schools being closed,” she said. “We knew tourism would be affected, so we started asking questions and making preparations.

“But we have everybody’s interest and heart in mind. And we’re going to do the best we can and make the best decision for the business and for our employees.”

Monroe said before the Navajo Nation closed its tribal parks and recreation areas last Thursday, Ken’s Tours did 18 tours a day, providing tours to about 1,000 people from across the world.

“And we were just peaking at that when we were asked to close down,” Monroe explained.

While daily tours have stopped, Monroe said Catching Dreams Coffee Shop, the gallery and boutique, and the Catching Dreams Café inside Ken’s Tours — located alongside Navajo Route 222 — are all still open and offering coffee, latte, espressos, and both breakfast and lunch menu. The gallery and boutique sell items such as jewelry and photographs of Tsébii’ Hazdeestas.

“We’re using single-item use in the coffee shop, so we’re taking some of those measures to keep the health and safety in mind for the customers (who) visit us and also for our employees,” Monroe added.

Just across Arizona State Route 98 at Carolene Ekis’ Antelope Canyon Tours, Ekis said her business is doing refunds for the next three weeks. But her Bead Store on Lake Powell Boulevard is still open for business.

“We have people come in and we sanitize highly touched surfaces and keep our hands washed,” Ekis said, adding that her tour business could be open by the end of the month.

Ekis also owns Inscription House Trading Post and Laundromat in Ts’ahbiikin, where she asked her customers to stay home unless they need essentials.

“If you are feeling sick, please (do not) visit us (until) you feel well,” she told her Ts’ahbiikin customers on Tuesday. “We appreciate your business and understanding that for the next 15 days we will operate on limited hours. Our laundromat will be closed for the next 15 days. Please help in slowing the spread. If you feel unwell, go to the (Ts’ahbiikin) Chapter House, they have set up a team to help you.”

Just a few miles down Navajo Route 222, Antelope Point Marina is still in operation where visitors are invited to quarantine in style on a luxury houseboat or another watercraft, on Lake Powell.

“They (visitors) are going to be, in essence, separated from everybody else,” said Mike Anderson, general manager at Antelope Point Marina. “They’re out on the lake by themselves. Most of our guests are going to be in their own party doing their thing, away from the crowd.”

DeRon J. Lister, tours manager for APM, said the marina is a small ray of sunshine amid shutdowns and postponements across the world.

“Travel is slowing down and the economic impact could be detrimental. For those (who) may still be interested in traveling, vacationing, or ‘quadrating in style,’ we can help.”

Anderson and Monroe said both APM and Ken’s Tours are operations that have business site leases with the Nation — the reason these businesses are still open. APM also has a concession contract with the National Park Service.

“We’re going to remain responsible to that contract and (to) that lease,” Anderson added.

APM last season had a total of 300,000 visitors go through its fee booth, which is open from mid-March to mid-October. APM though remains open year-around, with the exception of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

In the border town of Page, the municipal area isn’t completely dead and there is still foot traffic. Shops, bars, and businesses are still open. But the mayor, Levi Tappan, is urging the community to remain calm and to take common sense precautions such as hand-washing and staying home if sick.

“I urge everyone to remain calm and to take a rational approach to your preparations should this disease affect our community,” Tappan said. “At this point, everything that can be done at the city government level has been done and we will continue to work closely with government health officials.”

Tappan, who works at Page Hospital, said if COVID-19 strikes the community, Page is ready.

Page Hospital spokeswoman Nancy Neff, the regional program director for Banner Health, said both Page Hospital and Banner Health Clinic in Page have COVID-19 testing kits.

“(But) patients feeling ill must meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria for testing for COVID-19,” Neff told the Navajo Times.

Page Hospital will also be restricting visitors starting at 7 a.m. on Thursday, March 19, said David Young, spokesman for Banner Health. There are two exceptions to the visitor restriction: pediatric patients under 18 (must have one adult visitor with them) and laboring mothers (may have one support person).

“This move is to create a safe and secure environment for patients and healthcare workers during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Tuba City Regional Health Care Corporation heads said they are also actively monitoring COVID-19 and have assessed the public health risk associated with the virus as low for Western Navajo.

“But this could change rapidly,” said Lynette Bonar, CEO for TCRHCC. “At this time, we are encouraging our community to not panic but to be prepared and use prevention techniques for respiratory viruses.”

Bonar said the hospital is continuing to prepare for the potential spread of the virus alongside Coconino County and state partners and local healthcare providers.

TCRHCC on Tuesday had a Code Maroon — active shooter — incident and had a lockdown, according to a TCRHCC board member.

“At this time, TCRHCC is prepared with a limited number of COVID-19 test kids,” Bonar added. “A person will be considered for testing if they are experiencing respiratory symptoms and have one of three variables: contact with someone who has tested positive, traveled to China or other areas experiencing community spread of the virus, (and) respiratory testing has not identified a known illness.”

In response to fears and concerns in Ts’ahbiikin, the chapter will be providing lunch for students to assist families who are affected by COVID-19.

“Since the chapter understands that our community is located in the most rural area of northern Arizona and all school districts are miles away, we will assist our families by providing nutritional sack lunches for the children within the community … ages 2 to 18,” the chapter officials wrote in a statement. “Monday through Friday, (from) 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Be advised lunch bags are only available for pickup.”

The temporary lunch program will end April 3.

In Kayenta, the Township announced the township office is open, but the doors are locked due to COVID-19 concerns. Those who need to take care of business should call the township office at 928-697-8451.

Kayenta officials also announced closure of the Wednesday Vendor Village and cancellations of all social gatherings in the community.


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