Blackfeet Nation Ushers in New Phase of Reopening

One year after declaring a state of emergency due to the pandemic, the Blackfeet Indian Reservation prepares to enter a ‘New Normal’ with zero active cases

By Tristan Scott
Browning on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Beacon file photo

On March 15, one year to the day after the Blackfeet Nation declared a reservation-wide state of emergency due to the pandemic, tribal leaders will usher in a “New Normal” under the third phase of a reopening plan that has been one of the most strict and uncompromising in the nation.

In what tribal leaders hope will be the final hurdle before they permanently lift a state of emergency that has included restrictions far more intensive than those required either by Montana’s statewide mandate or by local decree, Phase 3 of the Blackfeet COVID Phase Plan, officially titled “New Normal,” loosens restrictions on community gatherings; allows indoor dining at restaurants with a 50%-75% capacity cap pending an approved business plan; permits non-tourism related lodging reservations; eliminates a structure for steep fines against residents who flout masking requirements and social-distancing guidelines; and allows bars to reopen and alcohol sales to resume.

Although Phase 3 does not lift masking requirements and maintains other public health guidelines, including an 11 p.m. curfew for anyone under the age of 18, it allows residents to recreate freely, signaling a dramatic departure from Phase 2 of the Tribe’s reopening protocol, which prohibited all unapproved gatherings and limited interactions outside private households while imposing a penalty structure of up to $5,000 in fines for anyone who violated quarantine or isolation orders.

According to James McNeely, a spokesperson for the Blackfeet Tribe, the new Blackfeet Tribal Business Council voted to adopted the Phase 3 protocol after consulting with local health officials and the Tribe’s Incident Command team, basing the decision on the diminishing number of active COVID-19 cases on the reservation, which as of March 12 had dropped to zero for the first time since Sept. 20, 2020.

“The safety of the Blackfeet Nation is our foremost priority,” McNeely said. “When we first learned of coronavirus, our response was immediate. We treated it like a disaster.”

A year later, vaccines are being administered to residents on the Blackfeet Reservation at a rapid clip, with 5,697 residents of the reservation having received at least one of either the Moderna or the Johnson & Johnson vaccines. With assistance from Indian Health Service and the Southern Piegan Clinic, the Blackfeet Nation had achieved a vaccination rate of 80% of the eligible population as of March 12 (the reservation population is roughly 10,000 residents, with 3,000 residents under the age of 17).

“The ability to move to Phase 3 is due to the diligence and care shown by the residents of the Blackfeet Nation and healthcare organizations throughout this pandemic,” according to a statement from McNeely. “While many are vaccinated, it is important to remember that COVID-19 testing is still highly encouraged as the vaccines only lessen the symptoms and do not prevent COVID. Please keep in mind that while the numbers have permitted this move to Phase 3, please take precautions and remain vigilant to all the requirements of social distancing, keep within your cohorts/households, wear your mask, sanitize and wash your hands.”

Additional openings will be based upon the sustained decline of COVID-19 statistics, and could include lifting restrictions along the eastern border of Glacier National Park, a move the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council could approve as early as next week, McNeely said. Other further actions could include: opening tribal offices to the public; the removal of capacity limits; permitting non-resident recreation on the reservation, including fishing- and wildlife-related activities; permitting tourism activity, including lodging reservations; and permitting large events regularly scheduled on the Blackfeet Reservation, such as North American Indian Days and rodeos.

McNeely also cautioned that the move to Phase 3 of the Blackfeet COVID Phase Plan comes with risk, and a critical element of the plan allows the community to move backward, re-implementing measures if needed.

“If the public health or healthcare system is strained, or cases rise dramatically, action will be taken to move back into Phase 1,” McNeely stated. “The Blackfeet Tribe has taken a strict, safety-oriented approach to ensuring the health and welfare of the Blackfeet Nation. Incident Command will continue to monitor community outbreaks and capacity in the medical and public health sectors as decisions are made regarding the recovery of the community.”

To coincide with the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council will host a virtual one-year commemoration of the COVID-19 Pandemic on its Facebook Live page, slated to begin at 10:30 a.m. on Monday.

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