Grand Canyon Closes Indefinitely After Tribal Insistence

The Navajo Nation, whose lands abut the Grand Canyon to the east, were among the governments and agencies requesting the closure of the National Park. 

The Grand Canyon closed indefinitely to visitors April 1 to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

Tourists access the park’s East Rim by cutting through the Navajo reservation via a state highway. Tribal officials reported yesterday that confirmed coronavirus cases on the Navajo Nation had reached 214 with seven deaths. 

“We simply cannot afford additional outbreaks among our Navajo people,” Jonathan Nez, Navajo Nation President, wrote in a March 24 letter asking Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to order closure of the Grand Canyon. 

Meanwhile the Havasupai Tribe, whose village of Supai is located deep within the Grand Canyon, shut down its tourism businesses on March 16 until at least April 14. “The health and safety of the many tourists who visit as well as our Tribal members, employees and consultants is very important to us,” said Havasupai Tribe Chairwoman Eva Kissoon. 

Thus far, the Havasupai Tribe has garnered $26,273 of its $150,000 goal for COVID-19 Relief Fund donations on gofundme.com to offset the loss of its primary revenue generator: tourism.

Grand Canyon National Park ultimately shutdown to visitors after a resident was diagnosed with COVID-19, and per a recommendation by the Health and Human Services Director and Chief Health Officer for Coconino County. 

According to the Washington Post, a resident of the Grand Canyon’s housing complex on the South Rim has tested positive for the virus.

President Nez’s letter to the Interior was never answered, the Washington Post noted. Prior to the park’s closure, Nez lamented: “Visitors are still coming and going when there is obviously a public health emergency throughout this country.” On March 31, Nez extended the state of emergency on the Navajo Nation and closure of government offices through April 26. 

Stephanie Roulett, a National Park Service spokeswoman, wrote in an April 1 email to the Washington Post that no Park Service employees at the Grand Canyon itself have been diagnosed with the virus.

“The Department of the Interior and the National Park Service will continue to follow the guidance of state and local health officials in making determinations about our operations,” Bernhardt said in the press release closing the Grand Canyon National Park. “As soon as we received the letter from the Health and Human Services Director and Chief Health Officer for Coconino County recommending the closure of Grand Canyon National Park, we closed the park.”

As Hilary Tompkins, the former solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior, underscored to ABC News, Navajo reservation residents face increased risk contracting COVID-19.

“The Native American population is particularly vulnerable not only due to underlying health disparities and high poverty rates, but also because many Indian reservations lack basic, modern day amenities such as running water, access to the internet, and connection with the electrical grid, which are vital during a pandemic.”

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