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Hard-hit tribe takes strict steps as virus surges in Arizona

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In this Thursday, June 25, 2020 photo provided by C.M. Clay, a sign alerts motorists that visitors are not allowed on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in eastern Arizona. The reservation, home to the White Mountain Apache Tribe, will be under lockdown this weekend to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. (C.M. Clay/White Mountain Apache Tribe via AP)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. – People in the deserts of Arizona flee to the White Mountains when the triple-digit heat is too much to bear, cooling off in the forest a few hours away. That worries a Native American tribe that calls the area home, as coronavirus infections and temperatures have both spiked in one of the hardest-hit states.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe is taking some of the most drastic actions in Arizona to protect its 13,500 residents, more than one-eighth of whom have already tested positive for COVID-19. It's taking cues from severe measures imposed by other tribes nationwide, including the Navajo Nation, which has curtailed an outbreak that once made it a national hot spot.

Those living on the White Mountain Apache Tribe's reservation in northeastern Arizona face the risk of fines and other penalties if they venture beyond their own yards this weekend. A two-week shelter-in-place order will follow. The tribe's Fort Apache Reservation also is closed to the summertime visitors who flock to the area to fish, hike and camp among ponderosa pines.

The tribe's confirmed infections and 20 deaths as of Friday make the reservation one of the hardest-hit places in a state that's recording over 3,000 cases a day and running short on hospital space.

“COVID has just turned our world upside down,” White Mountain Apache Chairwoman Gwendena Lee-Gatewood said.

The tribe also is ordering homeless people who test positive for the virus to quarantine at the tribe's casino-hotel — now closed to visitors — and is banning the sale and use of alcohol for the rest of the year. Lee-Gatewood hopes it will help keep people safe if they get lax about social distancing and other measures when they're drinking.

The tribe's strict steps come as Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey has declined to impose new restrictions on businesses like other states where confirmed cases are surging. Fellow Republican governors in Texas and Florida cracked down on bars Friday.

Ducey, who lifted a stay-at-home order in mid-May, has now paused further efforts to reopen the economy and allowed cities to require face coverings, without bowing to pressure for a statewide mandate.