The Navajo Nation has lifted its mask mandate, fully reopening to the public

By: - January 25, 2023 4:14 am
A yellow sign with black and turquoise lettering describes COVID mask requirements on the Navajo Nation.

A sign displays a message about staying safe from the coronavirus at the entrance to the To’hajiilee housing community on May 25, 2020.(Photo by Sam Wasson / Getty Images)

Almost three years after it was instituted to curb the spread of COVID-19, the Navajo Nation has lifted its mask mandate, making mask use optional in public spaces and businesses for the general public. By removing the mask mandate, the Navajo Nation is now considered fully reopened to the general public.

“It’s time for the Navajo people to get back to work,” Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said in a press release. “It’s time for them to be able to open their chapter houses to conduct local business and to receive services they are asking for and deserve.”

The Navajo Nation Department of Health released a public health emergency order on Jan. 20 announcing the end of the indoor mask mandate. The order applies to all public spaces across the Navajo Nation, including the 110 chapters and Navajo governmental offices.

“With the executive mandate being lifted, I want to ensure our people the welfare of our communities, families, and elders is still a top priority,” Navajo Nation Council Pro Tem Speaker Otto Tso said. “As we move forward, our Nation’s safety will lie directly in our hands, a responsibility that should not be taken lightly, so I ask you to continue taking precautionary measures.”

The emergency order does not ban the use of masks or prevent people from wearing masks in public spaces. But while the mandate is broadly lifted, it still remains in effect in certain places and circumstances: early childhood education, primary and secondary schools, nursing homes, healthcare facilities and those who have COVID-19 symptoms, test positive or were exposed.

Nygren told the Arizona Mirror that he thinks that the Navajo Nation may have been one of the only peoples in the U.S. still requiring a mask, but it’s time to pivot to individual choice rather than government edict.

“You gotta pull the Band-Aid off,” he said. “I believe that it’s optional. It’s up to the individual.”

Nygren said the move to lift the mask mandate is something that he wanted to do on his first day of office as president, but there were “too many people involved” to make that happen.

“I felt a little disrespected in terms of, why do these non-Navajo organizations have this much influence on us as a tribal sovereign nation?” Nygren said. He did not elaborate on what non-Native organizations were involved, but he said that it took him 10 days to make it happen.

These past few days, Nygren said he has gotten messages of concern about the lifting of the mandate, and he understands them. But he said that it would be valid to continue having a mask mandate on the Navajo Nation if it was a completely self-sustaining nation.

That’s when it would be a legitimate argument, Nygren said, because right now, about 90% of the Navajo people travel off the Navajo Nation to get the goods and services that they need.

“While they’re off the nation, they’re not masked up. How do you control that?” he said. “People make their own choices.”

Nygren said through his campaigning, he heard the Navajo people talk about wanting to talk to leadership directly and attend meetings in person. It was a request he empathized with, because there are still a large number of Navajo people who don’t have access to reliable online services.

“Those are the ones that are the most affected,” Nygren said. “I want to make sure that they have an opportunity to speak with somebody when they have an issue.”

Nygren added that it’s important for services provided by the Navajo Nation government to offer its constituents one-on-one contact because their number one duty is to serve the Navajo people.

“The Navajo Nation government is there to help provide services to the people, and the best way to do it here on the Navajo Nation is seeing them one-on-one,” he said.

Since the Nygren administration made the announcement on Friday, the Navajo people have had mixed reactions on social media. Some stand behind the decision because it should be up to the individual, others criticize it by saying the result will be another influx of the virus, which devastated the Navajo Nation in the early months of the pandemic.

The mask mandate was first implemented in April 2020 by then-Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who shared his concern about the lifted mandate on social media shortly after it was announced.

“The Navajo people should be asking the new administration for the comprehensive data to support their decision to lift the mask mandate,” Nez wrote in a Facebook post. “The reason why the Covid numbers have been relatively low compared to regions around the Navajo Nation is largely due to the mask mandate.”

“Lifting the mask mandate without being transparent about the comprehensive data raises many red flags,” Ness added. “I pray that the numbers of Covid, RSV, and flu cases do not rise, but the administration needs to be held accountable if we see a surge in new infections, hospitalizations, and deaths.”

The Navajo Nation Department of Health is still tracking COVID-19 numbers, and Nygren said the public could access that information by calling the department or accessing their dashboard online.

“That information is still readily available,” he said.

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Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror
Shondiin Silversmith, AZ Mirror

Shondiin Silversmith is an award-winning Native journalist based on the Navajo Nation. Silversmith has covered Indigenous communities for more than 10 years, and covers Arizona's 22 federally recognized sovereign tribal nations, as well as national and international Indigenous issues. Her digital, print and audio stories have been published by USA TODAY, The Arizona Republic, Navajo Times, The GroundTruth Project and PRX's "The World." Silversmith earned her master's degree in journalism and mass communication in Boston before moving back to Arizona to continue reporting stories on Indigenous communities. She is a member of the Native American Journalist Association and has made it a priority in her career to advocate, pitch and develop stories surrounding Indigenous communities in the newsrooms she works in.

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