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Southern Ute government opens offices to public after long COVID-19 restrictions

Visitors must follow tribe’s health safety guidelines
Margo Yeager, chief nursing officer at the Southern Ute Health Center, fills a syringe with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine in March. The tribe will shift Monday into a more open stage of its recovery plan after months of public health restrictions. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

The Southern Ute tribal government is – almost – fully open after about 17 months of public health restrictions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Monday, the tribe will shift into Phase 3, the least restrictive stage of the phased reopening system. It is the first time the reservation has opened to this extent since the start of the pandemic. The new phase could be good for business in the town of Ignacio, which is surrounded on three sides by tribal land.

“The Tribal offices will open to the public, employees and visitors, all of whom will be required to follow COVID-19 health safety guidelines,” a news release from the tribal government said.

Under Phase 3, capacity limits expand for events. For example, indoor and outdoor events can operate at 100% capacity up to 500 people. Personal gatherings are limited to 125 people.

In the past, events have operated under increased restrictions during Phase 1, or Stay at Home, and Phase 2, Safer at Home.

The shift into Phase 3, with more employees and visitors on the reservation, could be a boon for the Ignacio community. The tribe is the largest employer in La Plata County with 1,400 people employed in tribal government and various enterprises, according to a 2020 Economic Snapshot from Region 9 Economic Development District.

Those employees and visitors – also customers at local businesses – have been few and far between during more restrictive public health phases during the pandemic.

“Obviously, we would be very excited to start seeing them get back in here again,” said Dayson Goetz, owner of Porky’s Smokehouse in Ignacio. “We used to see a lot more of the tribal members here when we first opened and before COVID.”

The tribe’s announcement comes as communities in the United States, including La Plata County, are seeing rising cases, particularly among unvaccinated populations. The increase is linked to the rapid spread of the delta variant of the coronavirus.

The tribe continues to recommend practicing good hygiene, handwashing practices, frequent disinfection of high-touch surfaces and social distancing, the news release said.

People who are sick are asked to self-isolate. If symptoms begin to worsen, they can call their primary health care provider or the Southern Ute Health Center at 563-4581. They should notify their health care providers of their symptoms before arrival, the release said.

People who are not vaccinated or who are partially vaccinated are required to wear masks in any public indoor space, according to the tribe’s amended public health order on June 17. This does not apply to children 2 and younger, or children ages 3 to 9 who cannot medically tolerate a face covering.

Some exemptions also apply for people who are hearing impaired, exercising alone, eating at a restaurant and working in certain roles, such as law enforcement, the order said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently renewed its recommendation that people should wear masks to limit viral spread, regardless of vaccination status. Vaccinated people who catch the delta variant can spread it to others, the CDC said. The vaccines continue to be effective against severe illness, hospitalization and death caused by COVID-19.

The shift to Phase 3 was prompted in part by amendments to the tribe’s recovery plan, adopted in March 2021.

Modifications were made to key metrics and restrictions within approved phrases of the plan, the news release said. The Southern Ute Tribal Council, in consultation with the tribe’s incident management team, adopted the revisions July 30.

“The IMT will continue to monitor the data closely and provide the tribal leadership with the most up-to-date information in an effort to support the tribal reopening while prioritizing the health and safety of the tribal membership, employees and visitors,” the release said.


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