Tribes in Nevada brace for coronavirus

With older residents, distant hospitals and little funding, leaders try to prepare for first COVID-19 cases

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Billy Kerr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Amid the rapidly evolving COVID-19 outbreak, tribal nations in Nevada are bracing themselves for the arrival of the new coronavirus within their borders.

As of Wednesday, 23 of 27 tribal nations, bands and colonies within Nevada had made emergency declarations, up from 11 at this time last week.

The danger of the potential spread of the coronavirus on reservations is compounded by already existing disparities affecting tribal nations, including barriers to accessible health care, and higher rates of underlying medical conditions, such as heart and respiratory disease.

“We have a huge vulnerable population here,” said Amber Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “A lot of our people are older, have diabetes, have underlying health issues that put them at risk and we want them to be safe. That’s huge to us because the nearest hospital is 40 minutes away and transportation is a huge issue for our people here.” 

The Navajo Nation in Arizona has at least 14 confirmed cases, a worrisome harbinger for all Native American communities. Others have been confirmed at health care facilities for Native Americans in the area around Portland, Oregon, and in the Great Plains. The Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma confirmed one of its citizens has died from COVID-19.

Trump administration holding up money

Tribes like the Moapa River Band of Paiutes have long been exposed to environmental hazards that can cause respiratory illnesses. For instance, its Tribal Council blames fly ash dumps at the recently demolished Nevada Energy Reid Gardner coal-fired power plant for the high occurrence of asthma and lung disease on the Reservation. Those conditions make COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, more dangerous.

And while The Indian Health Service has provided sufficient COVID-19 tests to the tribe’s clinic on the Reservation there are shortages of N95 masks, gloves, thermometers, and other needed supplies. The clinic also lacks the ability as of now to provide COVID-19 test results in less than 7-10 business days.

“Our People are spending more anxious days waiting for results than we would like,” Laura Parry, the Moapa River Band of Paiutes chairwoman, said in a statement. 

Earlier this month Congress approved $40 million in emergency aid for tribes. But bureaucratic hurdles under the Trump administration have held that money up, despite increasingly urgent pleas from tribes trying to stockpile essential supplies and keep health clinics operational.

On Monday, Democratic Rep. Steven Horsford, who represents more than 10,000 Native Americans in his 4th District, joined 23 members of Congress — Democrats and Republicans — to send a letter to Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar urging him to release those funds to the Indian Health Service (IHS) for immediate dissemination to tribes, tribal organizations and urban Indian organizations.

Major loss of revenue

Beyond health concerns, smaller tribes are facing a mounting financial crisis in the wake of the pandemic. The Walker River Paiute Tribe has temporarily stopped selling recreational permits to the tribe’s reservoir, one of their largest sources of income, in an effort to protect its members by limiting the number of people entering the sovereign nation.

“We are not a casino tribe,” said Torres, chair of the Walker River Paiute Tribe. “That’s one of our big revenue makers throughout the year. We don’t have supplemental funds.”

Salaries for many of the Walker River Paiute tribe’s paid staff are funded through federal grants and unless those grants allow staff to be paid during their time off the tribe does not have the supplemental funds to continue paying employees. 

“A lot of our forces at the tribe are grant driven. If they are not supplying reports or fulfilling their objectives they can’t pull money from those grants,” Torres said. She said depending on the tribes needs and whether federal funding is allocated in a timely manner she tribe may need to dip into the tribes general fund draining their finances.

The Senate Wednesday passed a $2 trillion coronavirus response package, which reportedly could include up to $8 billion for tribal governments, as part of $150 billion directed to state and tribal governments. The legislation, which the House is expected to pass Friday, also allocates an additional billion dollars to the Indian Health Service.

Many tribes’ lack of a tax base makes them heavily dependent on their businesses to fund government services, from health care to law enforcement, but many of those — including casinos, hotels and other tourism businesses — have been forced to shut down, leaving even more well funded tribes in a financial crisis.

About 82 percent of the 524 tribal casinos in the United States have shuttered their doors in response to the COVID-19 outbreak, according to the American Gaming Association.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes operates a casino but closed the venue within 24 hours of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s “state of emergency” announcement out of concern for the well-being of their employees and customers.

“The Moapa Band of Paiutes depends on our Travel Plaza, Casinos, Fireworks Stand, Solar Projects, and Government Grants and Leases for Tribal income. There is no flexibility for us to generate additional revenue to replace that which has been lost due to closures and reduced sales. That money is gone, and historically the Native People are at the bottom of the list to receive State and Federal assistance or reimbursement,” said Parry, the tribe’s chairwoman in an email.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes estimates that revenues will be down more than $400,000 per month, and that emergency support to tribal members will run about $120,000 per month, projecting an overall cost at least $520,000 per month. 

Parry estimated the tribe may be able to recover about 20 percent of the support through some of this through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), “but there is no magical business we can start to meet this shortfall.”

While the public might perceive casino bailouts as “big corporations getting welfare,” many tribes rely on that revenue to fund important services for their members, and worry about avoiding bankruptcy if debts continue to climb while revenue declines.

Parry said that it would be naive to imagine smaller tribes like the Moapa River Band of Paiutes to “be invited to the same table” as large corporate resort industry operators like MGM, Sands, Wynn or Caesars to negotiate industry relief from the federal government. But she hopes tribal gaming interests are represented by some of the larger Native American casino operators.

“We simply don’t have the juice to be a player in that high-stakes game,” Parry said.

One possibility to allow the tribe to recover losses without relying on direct federal aid, at least for tribes in Nevada, is for the federal and state government to lift the tariffs charged on tribal sales of fuel, tobacco products and alcohol, Parry said.

The tribe has a similar agreement in place with the state of Nevada for sales tax and tobacco taxes. 

“If there is a temporary moratorium on all of these taxes during the declared emergency and for a few months afterwards, then the tribe may be able to break even on the COVID-19 debts we are incurring and avoid bankruptcy,” Parry said.

Feeding children, seniors using limited funds

After several conference calls with Tribal leaders from throughout Nevada, Jackie Conway, the Nevada Division of Emergency Services Tribal Coordinator learned via surveys that food is the top priority of tribes in Nevada. 

“One of the priority tasks for the Nevada Indian Commission, the Nevada Department of Agriculture, and the Nevada Division of Emergency Services is finding food sources and connecting them with our Tribal Nations most in need,” especially remote land bases, such as Yomba Shoshone, Duckwater Shoshone, and the Confederated Tribes of Goshute, said Stacey Montooth, the executive director Nevada Indian Commission.

Even getting day to day supplies has been difficult for the Walker River Paiute Tribe, Torres added. The long distances tribe members often have to travel to buy food and other essentials has become a huge barrier in the midst of panic buying.

“We don’t know what those grocery stores look like until we get there only to find out there’s no toilet paper, no bread.” Torres said. “These stores are being hit and ransacked by people who live in town.”

One hurdle the Moapa Band of Paiutes and other tribes face is feeding children on the Reservation while schools are closed, Parry said. The school system requires that each child travel, often long distances, to pick up their meal, opening the risk of bringing the coronavirus back home to their family.

The Moapa Band of Paiutes have mobilized to provide for their members and employees. About 120 households have been provided a week’s worth of emergency food and supplies by the tribe, about 100 on the Reservation, and about 20 in Clark County, Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Another week’s worth of supplies is set to be distributed this week. 

There is no one else stepping up to help, so it is our responsibility to take care of these people — not to wait for whatever help that may or may not arrive,” Parry said.

Jeniffer Solis
Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.