Citing virus variants, Navajo Nation president vetoes bill to reopen roads to visitors

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
A veto by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez on April 9 will keep tribally controlled roads like Navajo Route 36 in San Juan Chapter closed to visitors.

FARMINGTON — Roads controlled by the Navajo Nation will remain closed to visitors after tribal President Jonathan Nez vetoed a council resolution that sought reopening access.

In his decision on April 9, Nez cited concern about the rise of coronavirus variants in neighboring states and recent cases on the tribal land where variants first identified in the U.K. and in California were confirmed.

"We do not yet know the full extent that these variants will have in our communities, our people and our health care system. …We have discussed this matter with our public health experts, and they advise us to remain vigilant and cautious to protect the health of our citizens," Nez wrote in his veto message to Speaker Seth Damon.

Proponents said the bill was one step toward resuming tourism and reopening parks and recreation sites managed by the tribe.

Stay-at-home order issued for tribal residents

Nez's decision came the same day the Navajo Department of Health reinstated the stay-at-home order for residents on the tribal land.

The Navajo Nation Council approved reopening the tribe's roads without discussion on March 26.

A homemade sign reminds motorists on April 25, 2020, to follow the stay-at-home order by the Navajo Department of Health. After easing such restrictions, the health department reinstated the order on April 9.

Four days later, tribal officials announced the first case of the variant discovered in the U.K. was confirmed in mid-March in an elderly person who resides in the Western Agency.

On April 6, health officials confirmed a case of the variant from California in a test sample from a person in the Central Agency.

Both individuals have recovered, according to press releases from Nez's office.

"We believe there would have been more debate on this issue by the council if these variants were confirmed prior to the council's consideration of this legislation," Nez wrote.

He added that now is not the time for the tribe to ease such restrictions and the bill was "a step in the right direction" because of its reliance on tribal sovereignty to protect tribal members by limiting access.

Concerns about new COVID-19 variants

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, right, and first lady Phefelia Nez

Still, there is worry about new cases since the states of Arizona and Utah are lifting restrictions and mandates, such as those that require wearing face masks, Nez said.

"We need more time to monitor the impact of these changes in mandates and the trend in new COVID-19 cases," he said.

The tribe has seen a bump in new cases in daily updates from the tribe's department of health, Navajo Area Indian Health Service and Navajo Epidemiology Center.

There were 26 new cases reported on April 9, which was an increase of 11 cases since a day earlier.

What does the reinstated stay-at-home order do?

The reinstatement of the stay-at-home order includes having residents limit movement within their communities and limiting contact with individuals from outside their immediate household.

However, the daily curfew remains in effect from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., both Mountain Daylight Time.

The press release from Nez's office stated that he delivered a letter on April 7 to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland that requested the National Park Service delay reopening Grand Canyon National Park's east entrance until tribal officials meet with park service officials and park Superintendent Ed Keable.

The east entrance is located within the boundaries of the tribal land.

It had been closed in accordance with COVID-19 restrictions on the Navajo Nation and was scheduled to reopen on April 8, the Arizona Republic reported.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at

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