Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Navajo Nation Issues Curfew After Voluntary Shelter-In-Place Fails To Slow Spread Of COVID-19

Screengrab showing Jonathan Nez sitting at a disk speaking into a microphone
Screengrab from video via Facebook
President Jonathan Nez held a press conference on Facebook to update Navajo Nation residents about new rules going into effect this week. He was joined by other government officials who provided related updates.

The Navajo Nation is imposing a nightly curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. on all residents in an effort to reduce the spread of coronavirus. It went into effect on Monday at 8 p.m, but it’s not yet enforceable, according to the Navajo Nation police chief.

President Jonathan Nez announced the new measure via Facebook Live Sunday. It’s part of a public health order that restricts gatherings to five people or less, and limits grocery stores to 10 shoppers at one time. Nez said the new measures will help control the spread of COVID-19 on the reservation. 

“There’s gonna be a big uptick in the spread of virus if we don’t obey these ordinances,” he said. 

Almost 120 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed on the Navajo Nation since Nez issued a voluntary shelter in place order last Monday. That brings the total to 148 — including six cases on the Utah portion of the reservation. 

During the live-streamed press conference Sunday, Nez emphasized the fact that the gathering limitation applies to religious gatherings and traditional ceremonies. 

“Those of you that are facilitating these gatherings, we want to also let you know that there’s a liability. You can be held liable for someone getting sick or even dying,” he said.

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe, which also has land in San Juan County, has issued a curfew from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. each night, and has closed off roads leading into the White Mesa reservation. Councilman Malcolm Lehi said the curfew and closures were issued last week and are being enforced by tribal law enforcement. 

“We’re seeing more people that should not be on our tribal lands trying to take routes through there,” he said. “So we’re having road closures in certain areas of the tribe."

Photo of a sign that reads "welcome to the lands of the ute mountain ute tribe" and another sign that reads "white mesa covid 19 stage 1"
Credit Kate Groetzinger / KUER
The Ute Mountain Ute tribal government is based in Towaoc, Colo., but has a small reservation in San Juan County, Utah.

But Navajo Police Chief Phillip Francisco said the Navajo Nation attorney general still needs to clarify the legality of enforcing the curfew and the gathering restriction on the Navajo Nation. Until then, Francisco said his 205 officers will be focusing on educating people about the new measures and issuing warnings. 

“My biggest concern, being a police officer, is infringing on people’s constitutional liberties,” he said in an interview with KUER. “People have the freedom to move around, so if we’re stopping them from doing that I want to make sure we have the legal backing under the letter of the law.” 

Francisco said his department is running low on personal protective equipment, and he’s concerned about their safety. 

“Just like everywhere, we have a critical shortage,” he said, adding that healthcare workers are prioritized when the Navajo Nation is distributing equipment. 

Francisco said that all law enforcement on the Navajo Nation is being consolidated into one department as part of the COVID-19 response, and he expects his force to grow by around 30 employees with the addition of Navajo rangers and fish and wildlife wardens. He said the department is also looking at allowing cadets who have not completed the police academy to help enforce the laws.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
KUER is listener-supported public radio. Support this work by making a donation today.