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Makah Indian Tribe believed to be first community in Washington to roll back to Phase 2

An outbreak of COVID-19 on the reservation prompted the rollback. There are currently 21 active cases.

NEAH BAY, Wash. — Located at the northwestern-most tip of the lower 48, the Makah Indian reservation is among one of the last places to expect a COVID-19 outbreak.

But if this pandemic has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected.

"We are highly concerned," said Makah Tribal Chairman TJ Greene.

The Makah Nation was the first community in Washington state to completely close due to coronavirus. Over 500 days later, it became the first to revert to, not Phase 3, but Phase 2 of its reopening plan following an outbreak.

The total number of cases on the reservation stands at 21, but eight of those were diagnosed since July 23. All are believed to have been brought to the community by members traveling off the reservation, including trips to Las Vegas and Hawaii.

Greene stressed, however, the most important statistic remains: zero deaths.

"We set a goal early on that every human life is important. There isn't an acceptable loss of life due to COVID," Greene said.

The Makah population sits at around 1,500 people. The reservation has been closed to outsiders since March 16, 2020. Guards at a checkpoint make sure only people who belong on the reservation get in.

The community has one walk-in clinic. There is one road in and out of the reservation and the nearest hospital is two hours away in Port Angeles.

Greene said the tribe is being cautious so history doesn't repeat itself.

"We lost over 90% of our population with two outbreaks of smallpox in the 1800s. These stories, they still live with us today," Greene said. "On our main street, there is a memorial of a mass grave. It's a daily reminder. People drive by it every day." 

The Makah population is approximately 70% vaccinated, according to Greene.

Under Phase 2, visitors remain barred from the reservation, indoor gatherings are banned, outdoor gatherings are limited to 10 people and masks are mandatory in public indoor settings. 

The Makah people have lost at least $5 million in revenue from tourism, fishing and other businesses over the course of the pandemic, but Greene believes it will all be worth it.

"We need to protect each other," Greene said. "So long as the community does its part, as it has done every time, we'll be able to open things back up."

The tribal council will reassess the situation in two weeks.