In light of the worst public health crisis in generations, we have used medical science, facts and compassion as our guide. Throughout this crisis, our decision-making has been guided by Cherokee Nation health experts and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Based on this guidance, limiting access to government headquarters and temporarily shutting our businesses was the right thing to do.
We are now ready to move forward, while continuing to err on the side of safety and being prepared for any sudden change.
Beginning June 1, Cherokee Nation will begin a phased reopening of government offices, as well as Cherokee Nation Businesses. We will execute this plan gradually and strategically to safely restore services that have been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Our plan incorporates social distancing with employees returning on staggered shifts.
As we begin a return to normalcy, I am proud of our team’s response to the pandemic. Our government and business employees have risen to the challenge of this unprecedented time. Those not directly connected to our COVID-19 response have been working from home, taken voluntary furlough, or been on administrative leave since mid-March. These actions helped flatten the curve in northeastern Oklahoma, making it safer for everyone.
Our employees have continued to receive pay and health benefits throughout this time, and that will not change as we execute our reopening plan.
Our tribal government’s essential services have never ceased operation during this crisis. To date, the Cherokee Nation has delivered emergency food packages to some 40,000 Cherokees through our emergency elder food distribution program. Our health system has treated nearly 8,500 patients through telemedicine and responded to 1,000 calls made to the COVID-19 call center, as well as another 1,000 calls to the emergency elder food hotline.
Governmental employees working directly on COVID-19 response — health care employees, EMS, food distribution and Cherokee marshals — have continued operating under their regular schedules.
When we begin the transition back to traditional workdays on June 1, health and safety will remain the top priority. Ten people will be the maximum allowed at any location, and Cherokee Nation will implement additional safety measures: constructing safety partitions at client interaction areas, keeping workspaces distanced, and increasing cleaning methods and schedules.
One other measure we will incorporate is wearing safety masks. I recognize that there is controversy and uncertainty among some on this subject. However, medical science, recommendations from Cherokee Nation health experts and guidance from CDC leads me to conclude that the importance of masks is not uncertain. Further, if we believe in “gadugi,” the Cherokee spirit of working together, mask requirements also need not be controversial. For the time being, staff and visitors to Cherokee Nation government offices will wear masks.
Non-essential travel for employees remains suspended, and we continue to encourage our employees and citizens to observe social distance guidelines outside of work hours. These measures are all based on guidelines from the CDC. They will help protect our team, clients and patients to guard against a resurgence of the virus.
On the business side, CNB’s Public Health Task Force has developed a comprehensive plan to open tribal entertainment properties and other business offices that have been closed. As with our government reopening, these steps will occur in phases, and not all employees will be called to return at the same time. CDC safety guidelines will also be in effect for our businesses.
Reopening does not mean that the pandemic is over. COVID-19 is still spreading in our communities, and it remains a very real danger to all of us. The virus does not follow anyone’s timetable but its own, which is why we all have a responsibility to stay safe and protect each other through social distancing, washing our hands and following guidance from medical experts.
This health crisis will continue to present daily challenges, but Cherokee Nation will persevere, guided by our values of community, family and culture. We continue to make progress by prioritizing safety and always remembering what has gotten us this far: the knowledge that we are all in it together.
Chuck Hoskin Jr. is the Principle Chief of the Cherokee Nation.