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Blackfeet Nation reopens after strict pandemic closures

BROWNING, Mont. (AP) – On March 15, 2020, just two days after COVID-19 entered Montana, the Blackfeet Nation declared a state of emergency.

Like many places in Montana, the tribe’s schools adopted remote learning, and businesses, bars, and restaurants closed. But unlike the rest of the state, the Blackfeet Nation stayed closed for a year.

Students continued remote learning, the tribe implemented curfews, enforced punishable fines, and shut businesses, restaurants, and bars.

As many federal, state and local leaders emphasized opening the economy, the Blackfeet Nation’s COVID-19 Incident Command adopted the phrase, “Lives over the economy.”

That motto guided the tribe’s decision to close the east entrance to Glacier National Park, which typically attracts millions of visitors worldwide and boosts the tribe’s economy each year.

Despite their strict precautions and economic sacrifices, the Blackfeet Nation, like tribes nationwide, was hit hard by COVID-19. At its peak in October, the reservation had nearly 400 active cases. In total, the tribe lost 47 community members to the virus.

After implementing some of the strictest COVID-19 closures in the country, the Blackfeet Nation, like many tribes in Montana, has had great success in its vaccine rollout. Because more than 95% of adults on the Blackfeet Reservation have been vaccinated, the tribe was able to reopen the east entrance to Glacier National Park and open local businesses, restaurants, and bars.

In its cautious reopening, the Blackfeet Nation boosts morale and the economy while keeping people safe, the Great Falls Tribune reports.

Blackfeet Nation enters Phase 3 of reopening.

One year ago, Victoria Day Chief was a senior at Heart Butte High School.

She worked as a teacher’s assistant and had plans to study nursing in Spain when she graduated, but those plans were derailed when COVID-19 entered Montana. She canceled her travel plans, and when schools went remote, she was laid off.

“My entire focus became protecting my family,” she said.

In October, Day Chief, 19, got a new job with the tribe to help them distribute stimulus money. But when things calmed down, she was laid off again. Since the tribe entered Phase 3 of its reopening, which allows businesses to operate at 50 to 75% capacity, Day Chief got a job as a players club rep at Glacier Peaks Casino.

Phase 3, or “New Normal,” went into effect on March 15 and allows schools to offer in-person learning, bars, restaurants, and lodging to open, and nursing homes can begin to have visitors in May.

“This just feels a lot more stable. It’s a lot easier for me to pay my bills,” she said, adding that she’s saving for college and hopes to earn a degree in nursing.

Glacier Peaks Casino is one of the largest non-government employers on the Blackfeet Reservation. Last year, the business had 250 employees, but when the reservation closed in March, the casino laid off 129 people.

After being closed for a year, Glacier Peaks Casino now employs more than 200 people. Dennis Fitzpatrick, CEO of Siyeh Corp., which owns the casino, said the business is operating at 50% capacity and can begin to expand as long as people follow guidelines. Masks are required in the casino, employees sanitize surfaces, and gaming machines are programmed to enforce social distancing. If someone uses one device, the machines next to it will not accept a credit card because the gamers would be less than 6 feet apart.

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