Navajo President Nygren ends COVID-19 mask mandate – The Arizona Republic

Finishing his first full week in office, Navajo President Buu Nygren on Friday called an end to the Navajo Nation’s COVID-19 mask mandates, which were first implemented in April 2020 by former President Jonathan Nez.

“It’s time for the Navajo people to get back to work,” Nygren said. “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.”

Nygren said in a joint press release with the Navajo Nation Speaker’s Office that the mask mandate would officially end at 5 p.m. on Friday, even as the contagious new sub-variant XBB.1.5 of the coronavirus has been detected in Arizona.

The order applies to public spaces across the 110 chapters. The order leaves the continued wearing of masks optional for the general public and for all businesses.

It includes some exceptions. Masks will still be required for early childhood education sites, primary and secondary schools, nursing homes, health care facilities and those who have COVID-19 symptoms, test positive or were exposed, the order states.

As of Thursday, there have been 2,009 confirmed deaths on the Navajo Nation due to COVID-19. There have been a reported 81 new cases between Jan. 12-19, with a total of 80,539 cases since the start of the pandemic. The B.1.1.529 variant is the variant of concern right now, though the new subvariant has not been reported on the Navajo Nation yet, according to the Navajo Department of Health.

COVID-19: After a ‘scary’ beginning, Navajo leaders say their response has become a model

After Nygren’s announcement, Nez tweeted a response, saying the Navajo people should be asking the new administration for comprehensive data to support the decision to lift the mandate, asking whether it was based on politics or public health.

“The reason why the COVID numbers have been relatively low compared to regions around the Navajo Nation is largely due to mask mandates,” Nez wrote in the statement on Twitter. “To my knowledge, this new administration has yet to publicly share COVID-19 numbers since taking office and that’s a great concern.”

The pandemic hit the Navajo Nation only a year and two months into Nez’s administration and became the main focus of his administration as it spread rapidly across communities. Nez held town halls every day, then twice a week and finally once a week to keep citizens up to date on what was happening with the ongoing pandemic. There has been no mention of continuing these town halls or updates in the new administration.

“Whether it’s done through online town halls, radio, or press releases, the Navajo People deserve to know the data so they can make informed decisions for themselves and their children and elders,” Nez said Friday. “Lifting the mask mandate without being transparent about the comprehensive data raises many red flags. I pray that the numbers of COVID, RSV, and flu cases do not rise, but the new administration needs to be held accountable if we see a surge in new infections, hospitalization, and deaths.”

During Nez’s last town hall, he reflected on the mandates imposed on the Navajo people to keep them safe from the pandemic, such as weekend lockdowns, closure of businesses and schools, mask mandates and other measures. He said they were strict but he would do it again if it meant keeping people alive.

His office’s work advocating to the Biden-Harris administration and to congressional leaders to get vaccines, test kits and funding were successful. He also mentioned partnerships with Navajo Department of Health, Navajo Area Indian Health Services, Navajo Epidemiology Center, Navajo Department of Public Safety and others.

“I felt our Navajo People needed to see their leaders out there in the communities as well, and we took that to heart, just to let them know we would overcome this virus,” said Nez during the Jan 9 town hall. “I know we didn’t want to wear masks, told to stay home, be locked up on the Navajo Nation. But I think people realized the safest place to be was at home. At times you think, maybe that’s why I lost the election. But I would do the same thing over, because I want you all to live.”

Nygren said Navajo Nation is one of the last jurisdictions in the country to lift the mandate that was ordered by the Navajo Department of Health almost three years ago. Navajo Speaker Pro Tem Otto Tso also talked about the decision.

“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. 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,” Tso said

He also thanked Nygren and Vice President Richelle Montoya for “taking this step in opening the Navajo Nation. I extend my gratitude towards former President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer for their work in guiding the Navajo Nation through the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Because the virus continues to circulate, it remains individuals’ responsibility to continue healthy habits they learned during the pandemic such as washing hands and being vaccinated, he said.

“Be responsible,” Nygren said. “Mask up if you’ve tested positive. Mask up and take a rapid test if you notice symptoms or suspect you’ve been exposed. We, as a nation, are much more aware and much more prepared than in April 2020.”

Arlyssa Becenti covers Indigenous affairs for The Arizona Republic and azcentral. Send ideas and tips to arlyssa.becenti@arizonarepublic.com.

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