The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' two casinos, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and (pictured) Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Valley River, closed March 18 for at least two weeks. Joseph Martin / Carolina
The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' two casinos, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and (pictured) Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Valley River, closed March 18 for at least two weeks. Joseph Martin / Carolina

The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose reservation is one of the largest tourist draws in Western North Carolina, is limiting access to tribal land and is urging visitors to stay away as the tribe rides out the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The tribe’s land can now be accessed only at three points: U.S. 441 at Casino Trail Junction, U.S. 19 South at Birdtown and U.S. 19 North at Soco. All other access points to tribal lands, including its lands in Graham and Cherokee counties, are closed.

Access is being granted only to tribal members, first generation descendants (nonenrolled Cherokee who have or had an enrolled parent), employees of essential businesses, business owners needing to access their businesses, commercial deliveries and the U.S. Postal Service.

The tribe has also closed its schools because of the new coronavirus. Casinos there have been closed for two weeks. 

Principal Chief Richard Sneed on Thursday ordered closure of all public access areas on tribal land and declared a state of emergency Friday. On Saturday, he ordered the road access restrictions.

“It cannot be overstated the seriousness of the situation that we face as a nation. We must all take this public health crisis seriously and do our part to protect our community by limiting our exposure,” Sneed said in an address on his Facebook page. “The intent of this order is to discourage out-of-town visitors from coming to Cherokee during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Tribal offices were also ordered closed, and so were nonessential businesses on tribal land. For tribal members, “I am hereby issuing a stay-at-home order.”

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River in Murphy cited a need to protect their employees and players as they announced their closures on their Facebook pages.

“To be clear, there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos to date,” they stated. “However, for the health and safety of our team members and guests, the casino will close beginning Wednesday, March 18.”

The Cherokee Indian Hospital Authority, which runs the hospital on the reservation, has already taken measures to prevent the spread of the virus. In a roundtable discussion on Facebook, Cherokee Indian Hospital Chief Executive Officer Casey Cooper said it was of grave importance that the tribe take action to keep the virus from spreading to the reservation, especially if the current trends of infection in North Carolina continue.

“It’s possible that we will not have not enough beds, not enough beds in Cherokee and not enough beds in the region,” Cooper said. “We have 18 beds at the hospital, but the more concerning thing is we have no ICU beds and no ventilators at the Cherokee hospital. We’ll be very dependent on our partners in the region to help us care for the severely ill.”

Sneed urged all tribal residents not to travel. He also asked that everyone take the pandemic seriously, self-monitor and quarantine.

“We are very fortunate at this time to have no positive cases of COVID-19 in our community,” Sneed said.

“I, along with the vice chief and members of the tribal council, feel it is our No. 1 priority to do everything within our power to keep our community members safe. With that in mind, I am asking the public to postpone any visits to Cherokee until such a time that this outbreak is under control. I would also ask that our tribal citizens make every effort not to travel and instead stay close to home.”

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Joseph Martin is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in Murphy. Email to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.

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