Tribal governments to get $8 billion from CARES Act

(The Center Square) – Tribal councils are facing unprecedented challenges in countering the spread of the coronavirus across tribal lands, but will see some financial relief from the federal government.   

Tribal governments across the country will receive $8 billion from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or the CARES Act, that was recently signed into law by President Donald Trump, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) said. The BIA will receive $500 million in direct appropriations from the legislation.

According to the agency, the funds will cover eligible expenses through the federal Department of the Treasury, in cooperation with the Department of the Interior and tribal governments. Such consultations will ensure that the funds will be allocated effectively.  

“The CARES Act provides a critical infusion of supplemental funding for Tribal Communities, as we rapidly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary for the BIA, and the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education. “Coupled with the nearly a half-billion dollars in direct appropriations to Indian Affairs, the historic $8 billion tribal set-aside will provide urgent financial assistance.”

Sweeney noted support from lawmakers who pushed for tribal government funding amendments in the CARES Act, coming from Sens. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and Steve Daines, R-Mt.

“Arizona’s tribal communities rely heavily on the industries hardest hit by the fallout created by the COVID-19 outbreak, including tourism and hospitality,” McSally said. “Our tribes are already feeling [the] significant strain. This legislation provides immediate cash relief and strong assistance to tribal communities impacted by this so workers and families can pay their bills.” 

BIA will receive $453 million for what the agency classifies as "essential services" to help prepare and respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is also funding in the legislation to support the continuation of government services and to support law enforcement, health services and tribal detention center employees, and $69 million set aside for education-related services.  

These funds will supplement the operations of the Bureau of Indian Education and will support further educational recovery. The legislation also directs the Department of Education to allocate over $150 million to education programs.

Despite new funding from the federal government, local tribal governments are taking it upon themselves to implement social distancing policies and prepare for an economic downturn on reservations. Such policies, like their state counterparts, include the suspension of certain public activities and the modification of operations for businesses deemed “essential.” 

In Colorado, the Southern Ute Tribal Council announced the suspension of many operations earlier in March. 

Tribal Chairman Christine Sage announced that government and business employees are required to work remotely. This includes the staff and total operations of the Sky Ute Casino Resort in Ignacio, Colo., which ceased all operations on March 23 and remains closed for all dining and gaming operations indefinitely.

"Making the decision to modify tribal services and business operations to an even greater degree was made by prioritizing the health, safety, and welfare of the entire tribal membership and tribal staff. … Modifying tribal services and business operations and asking tribal staff to work from home will help ‘flatten the curve,’ thereby reducing the risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19, and putting additional stress on the healthcare system," Sage said. 

The Southern Ute Tribal Council has since issued a stay-at-home order, requiring all non-essential businesses and employees to stay home and maintain social distancing standards. 

The council also announced that the tribe had reported at least two confirmed cases of COVID-19. Nearby, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council followed suit by limiting business access and shuttering the Ute Mountain Casino and Hotel, in Towaoc, Colo., “after determining the potential presence of the virus presents a serious threat to the health of all persons on or entering the reservation.”