The Navajo Nation has taken drastic steps to fight COVID-19, which has already taken more than 250 tribal members’ lives. Hotels on the Navajo Nation are only allowed to house essential workers, and the Nation’s president, Jonathan Nez, has also asked tourists to stay away.
That’s why Sheena Cly Wahid was surprised to see an advertisement on Facebook for a hotel in Monument Valley called Goulding’s Lodge. The post encouraged people to visit the lodge for Memorial Day Weekend, while the rest of the reservation was on lockdown due to a 57-hour curfew. (The weekend curfews were in place for eight weeks before Nez lifted them on Wednesday.)
“We’re living in a time, especially on the reservation, where they’re in a state of emergency,” Wahid said. “So generally people don’t want tourism happening right now.”
Wahid lives in Phoenix but grew up in Monument Valley where she still has family, including an uncle who passed away last month due to COVID-19. She posted her concerns on Facebook, and the post drew over 80 comments — many from community members who agreed that the hotel should not be operating at this time.
“To be advertising ‘Come have fun, have adventures,’ when people are dying around here, my family members and friends, they’re not taking [our safety] into consideration,” said Dawnae Ashkii, who lives in Monument Valley and saw Wahid’s post.
But the hotel is located on private property surrounded by the Navajo Nation, so it doesn’t have to abide by the Nation’s laws. Instead, it’s under the jurisdiction of San Juan County, which is in the yellow, low-risk phase of Utah’s reopening plan. Under the yellow phase, businesses can fully reopen if they follow recommended measures.
But there are 47 active COVID-19 cases in Monument Valley right now. That’s 40 times higher than the rate of the state.
“It’s tough having overlapping jurisdictions,” said San Juan Health director Kirk Benge. He added that San Juan County is responsible for inspecting Goulding’s restaurant and has set operating guidelines for businesses in the county, which Goulding’s agreed to follow. But he doesn’t know if San Juan County could force the hotel to close, nor does he think they should have to.
“The reality is Goulding’s has always been a very good partner in working to protect public health,” he said.
But the head of the local government, Oljato Chapter President James Adakai, has said the business should comply with the Navajo Nation’s health orders, which would only allow Goulding’s to house essential workers.
“Goulding’s needs to comply with the [Navajo Nation] executive orders and public health orders,” Adakai wrote on Facebook. “Weekend lockdown, weekly curfew 8 p.m.-5 a.m., halting tour operations, social distancing, disinfecting stores, restaurants at the curb.”
Gov. Gary Herbert also weighed in on the issue of San Juan County’s overlapping jurisdictions in a press conference last week.
“We would strongly encourage any Utahns that live close to the border or on the reservation to follow all the tribal health directives,” Herbert said, adding “if you’re on the Navajo Nation lands you need to follow their directives, not the Utah directives, which could be different.”
While Goulding’s is not fully following the Navajo Nation’s guidelines, the lodge is taking more precautions than are required by the state of Utah, according to marketing director Monica Lafont.
She said the hotel is working with the Navajo Nation Department of Public Health and has decided to keep doing take-out only at its restaurant, despite the fact that they could do dine-in service under Utah’s guidelines. The hotel is also resting rooms for at least 24 hours between guests in an effort to keep them safe.
“We’ve spent hundreds of dollars on chemicals and [personal protective equipment] to keep people safe,” Lafont said. “So when everyone wants to yell at us it’s like, ‘You don’t know the whole story.’”
Community members, including Ashkii, have also raised concerns over a KOA campground and RV park located a few miles north of Goulding’s. On Monday, there were at least six RVs at the park, and staff and guests in the gift shop weren’t wearing masks. Partial-owner David Laws declined to comment on which guidelines his business is following.