For Stefanie Zarycki and her husband, the tribe’s closure of the east entrances to Glacier has meant hiring nine employees on a “very part-time basis” instead of the 20 or more they originally planned to hire to help run their business, Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant in East Glacier Park, during the tourist season. Most of the employees they hire are from the area or tribal members, she said. While some other businesses have closed for the season, Serrano’s has continued to operate as a carry-out-only restaurant, she said. While the restaurant has received some money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Zarycki said restaurant revenues during a tourist-free tourist season won’t be enough to sustain the business and make payments on the loan they took out to buy it. The couple recently purchased the restaurant and are in their second season operating it. Additionally, paychecks for the few employees they have been able to hire are much less than they would have been in a normal tourist season. Last year, she said, the restaurant’s payroll was $220,000 for May through September. “They’re making — just because of what our business can do — every two weeks, they’re taking home a couple hundred bucks and that’s it,” she said. “We were proud to write big paychecks. And this year’s just heartbreaking. One of our workers came in and said, ‘I can’t make my car payment.’” The Blackfeet Nation, like other Montana tribes, has taken aggressive steps to prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 among tribal citizens, many of whom, including elders and those with existing health problems, face higher risks of severe consequences from the virus, including hospitalization and death. Indigenous people make up about 7% of Montana’s population but account for 32% of the state’s deaths attributed to the coronavirus, according to state data. After closing the park’s east entrances in June, tribal leaders earlier this month extended a stay-at-home order for reservation residents through the end of July. They’ve also closed the reservation’s roads to nonessential travel and prohibited recreation on the reservation for nonresidents. The tribe’s incident command hasn’t responded to a request for comment. But when the tribe announced it was closing the east entrances, Robert DesRosier, head of the tribe’s COVID-19 incident command, said a reservation full of visitors was “not a risk worth taking. It’s lives versus dollars.” The tribe’s closures come during a short tourist season when most businesses on the reservation make most of their money. To help make up for the loss, the business owners want Bullock to create a special relief package for businesses like theirs affected by the tribe’s closure, or to be allowed to re-apply for existing state grants. “We have lost an entire year’s income in the span of a few weeks, with not much hope that next year will be better. We are stressed — financially, mentally, emotionally. We may lose everything,” the letter said. “We are not asking to be made whole — we don’t expect the people of Montana to pay us not to work.” according to state data. While Ritter Saunders said businesses in the East Glacier area “certainly face a situation unique to their location,” guidelines for the grant program “have been applied equally statewide.” Still, guidelines could evolve or more assistance could become available, she said. “Policy considerations are being evaluated in real time, and additional state or federal support systems may still be realized as the long-term impacts of the pandemic become clearer,” Ritter Saunders said. Glacier National Park visitors spend a lot of money in the region. In 2018, out-of-state visitors spent about $110.5 million in Glacier County, which includes much of the Blackfeet Reservation. They also spent another $614 million in Flathead County, home to the park’s western entrances. With the east entrances closed, Zarycki said she’s seeing much of the spending that would normally go to businesses and employees on the east side of the park flow to Flathead County, where visitors can still access the park. Hopefully, she said, Bullock and other state officials at least now have a better understanding of the situation businesses on the reservation face. “I don’t think they were aware of how much harm has been done,” Zarycki said of state officials. “We don’t want to go against the tribe’s wishes or be disrespectful to their feelings on the virus or how they’re trying to manage it. But we’re sacrificing for the greater good and we need help.”
“It’s not a risk worth taking. It’s lives versus dollars”: The Blackfeet Nation will keep the eastern entrances to the popular Glacier National Park closed amid rising numbers of #COVID19 cases in #Montana. @GlacierNPS #Coronavirus https://t.co/maMvoJYKSK— indianz.com (@indianz) July 1, 2020
Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.
This story originally appeared on Montana Free Press. It is published under a Creative Commons license.