By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
With nationwide closures and cancellations mounting due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), several of the major entities of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) will maintain operations for now. The EBCI tribal government and the Tribe’s two casinos, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Casino & Hotel in Murphy, will maintain operations with several caveats.
Tribal leaders and officials met at the Shawn Blanton Emergency Operations Center on the afternoon of Sunday, March 15 to discuss various issues surrounding coronavirus.
“First and foremost, I am really grateful for the amazing team that we have both with the Incident Command Team, the Joint Information Committee,” Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed said following Sunday’s meeting. “When I look at all of the resources that we are blessed to have here at the Tribe to deal with an incident like this, everybody is putting in a lot of hours, and it’s great to see the esprit de corps, the camaraderie, and the teamwork.”
He added, “For the general public, I would ask everyone to, first of all, remain calm. We, along with the State of North Carolina and the country as a whole, recognize that hygiene measures and preventative measures are in the best interest not only of the individual communities but the country as a whole. We’re trying to really nip this thing in the bud. Some people have said, ‘oh, you’re overreacting’, but it’s not overreacting. We’re trying to prevent the spread of a virus that is airborne, that remains alive on surfaces for days at a time, and the only way to do that is to have people not congregate and to practice good hygiene. My ask of the community would be not to repeat rumors, but to look to the Joint Information Committee and get their information from there – get their information from the Principal Chief’s Facebook page.”
Chief Sneed said it truly is a team effort. “We are working diligently with the hospital, the Boys Club, Public Health and Human Services, the school system, and the Executive Branch – everybody is working together, and we just need the cooperation of the public. We need everybody to remain calm and to exemplify those values that are in keeping with the highest traditions of Cherokee people.”
Schools statewide, including those in Cherokee, will be closed for two weeks.
Chief Sneed issued an executive order on Sunday afternoon dealing with tribal employees who might be affected by those closures. “Any tribal employee that is being impacted by any school, daycare, or Youth Center closure will be granted up to 24 hours of emergency sick leave Monday, March 16 – Wednesday, March 18. This emergency sick leave will not affect your sick leave balance.”
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper issued Executive Order No. 117 on the afternoon of Saturday, March 14 that all North Carolina public schools will close to students on Monday, March 16 for a period of at least two weeks. He also issued another executive order banning “mass gatherings of more than 100 people across the state.”
In his order, he stated, “A mass gathering is defined as any event or convening that brings together more than one hundred (100) persons in a single room or single space at the same time, such as an auditorium, stadium, arena, large conference room, meeting hall, theater, or any other confined indoor or outdoor space. This includes parades, fairs, and festivals.”
It continued, “A mass gathering does not include normal operations at airports, bus, and train stations, medical facilities, libraries, shopping malls and centers, or other spaces where more than one hundred (100) persons are gathered. It also does not include office environments, restaurants, factories, grocery stores, or other retail establishments.”
Soon after Gov. Cooper’s order on Saturday, Cherokee Central Schools (CCS) announced that it would be closing as well. In a statement, Yona Wade, CCS director of community affairs, noted, “Due to the public health emergency facing our community and nations, Cherokee Central Schools will be closed Monday, March 16-30. Monday, March 16 will be a teacher workday.”
During Sunday’s meeting, Wade told the attendees, “We are working through the process of what to do with staff that may have children at other facilities and what that will look like for our staff. So, we are continually working through that process. We identified ways to provide food service to students at home. That is one of our biggest worries with the two weeks, being out to be able to provide that food service.”
Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, praised the closure decision. “We appreciate Governor Cooper’s careful consideration of all the impacts a state-wide closure of our public school system would have on educators, students, parents, and the wider community. Ultimately, we think this is the correct decision, and we thank him for acting decisively in the best interest of everyone involved.”
The Cherokee Boys Club announced on the evening of March 14 that Agelink Childcare and Snowbird Childcare would both be closing for two weeks as well. “Although there are no cases of coronavirus in our facilities, we are taking the proper precautions and making it our utmost priority to protect the well-being of our clients at Agelink Childcare as well as Snowbird Childcare. In saying that, both facilities will be closed March 16-30. The staff will remain on duty for cleaning and sanitizing purposes.”
Greg Owle, Cherokee Boys Club general manager, said during Sunday’s meeting, “Currently, we are working on our new and improved policies for pandemic and emergency incident management. The major thing that we’re doing at this point is we’re going to be closing to the students the day care facilities – the Agelink facility and the Snowbird facility. We are going to proceed and be at a current work level for the next two weeks unless we are forced to close.”
He said the Boys Club will be fully staffed during the two-week span. “We’re going to go through a deep clean process, cleaning our buses, cleaning the day care facilities, cleaning our offices, and, at the same time, we’re going to be working on policies and procedures. It is not our intention to cut anybody out of work. Basically, we’re going to continue to work and pay everybody.”
In addition to the above-named entities, the New Kituwah Academy Elementary School and New Kituwah Daycare, Dora Reed Childcare Center, and the Big Cove Daycare Center will be closed during the two-week span. The Cherokee Life Center and all community gyms will also be closed during that period. Tsali Manor is closed to the public, but meals will continue in several ways including drive-through meals and meals being delivered to those who cannot make it there. Due to the size of the base of students who attend, the Cherokee Youth Center will be closed, but the Snowbird Youth Center will remain open.
Casey Cooper, Cherokee Indian Hospital chief executive officer, commented that in addition to the changes at intake, “We have restricted visitors at in-patient, and we have restricted almost all visitors at Tsali Care.”
For now, all operations at both of the Tribe’s casinos will continue. Chef’s Stage Buffet, at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, is closed until further notice.
While day-to-day operations will remain intact, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort announced a major event cancellation on March 13. Brooks Robinson, Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos regional senior vice president and general manager, said in a statement, “Given the rapidly evolving situation, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to cancel the April WSOP (World Series of Poker) Circuit Event. We look forward to hosting our next WSOP event in August and hope that customers who had planned to be here in April will visit us then.”
Vickie Bradley, Secretary of EBCI Public Health & Human Services, ran Sunday’s meeting and summed up precautions, “Wash your hands. The best prevention is simple hygiene.”