Business owners on the Blackfeet Reservation are asking for extra help from the state to stay open, saying the Blackfeet Nation’s closure of tribal land to tourists this summer poses additional challenges other Montana businesses don’t face. 

Leaders of the Blackfeet Nation closed the east entrances of Glacier National Park in late June to help protect reservation citizens from COVID-19. Those measures have meant a lost season of tourist revenue for businesses on the reservation, many of which rely heavily on tourist spending. 

In a letter sent to Gov. Steve Bullock last week, 30 reservation business owners — tribal citizens and non-Indigenous alike — asked for additional financial relief from the state, saying their businesses should be eligible for extra help because of the lost tourism revenue. 

They said the tribe’s closure of the east side of the park, while an important protective measure, has worsened already severe financial losses due to pandemic restrictions and highlighted additional challenges faced by businesses on Montana reservations, where tribal leaders have taken more drastic actions than the state at large to limit the spread of COVID-19. And they’re not confident that next year will be much better. 

“We are not writing to demand the Park open, nor to contradict the Tribe’s coronavirus directives. We are in a different situation than any other group of businesses in the state. We appreciate your full support of the tribe’s measures to protect the residents of the Blackfeet Reservation, and hope that you will also fully support the businesses that bear the direct economic weight of those decisions,” the letter said. “The east side closure directly impacts our ability to make an income, pay our bills, and raise our families. The existing relief programs are not tailored to our unique situation.”

Bullock’s office has seen the letter and intends to respond, Bullock spokeswoman Erin Loranger said Monday. She didn’t offer a position on the business owners’ request and said it is necessary to see how a new federal relief package currently being negotiated in Congress would potentially apply to those businesses. 

“We know businesses across the state have been impacted by a decline in tourism, and that business owners on the Blackfeet Reservation have been particularly impacted due to extended closures,” Loranger said. “The issues raised in the letter will be part of discussions moving forward as we consider how we can meet the remaining need across the state, while also considering that the impacts of this virus have likely not been fully realized. Additionally, we need to see what support for businesses and individuals will be included in the fourth CARES Act package currently being negotiated by Congress.”

For Stefanie Zarycki and her husband, the tribe’s closure of the east entrances to Glacier has meant hiring nine employees on a “very part-time basis” instead of the 20 or more they originally planned to hire to help run their business, Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant in East Glacier Park, during the tourist season. Most of the employees they hire are from the area or tribal members, she said. 

While some other businesses have closed for the season, Serrano’s has continued to operate as a carry-out-only restaurant, she said. 

“They’re making — just because of what our business can do — every two weeks, they’re taking home a couple hundred bucks and that’s it. We were proud to write big paychecks. And this year’s just heartbreaking. One of our workers came in and said, ‘I can’t make my car payment.’”

Serrano’s Mexican Restaurant co-owner Stefanie Zarycki

While the restaurant has received some money through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Zarycki said restaurant revenues during a tourist-free tourist season won’t be enough to sustain the business and make payments on the loan they took out to buy it. The couple recently purchased the restaurant and are in their second season operating it.

Additionally, paychecks for the few employees they have been able to hire are much less than they would have been in a normal tourist season. Last year, she said, the restaurant’s payroll was $220,000 for May through September. 

“They’re making — just because of what our business can do — every two weeks, they’re taking home a couple hundred bucks and that’s it,” she said. “We were proud to write big paychecks. And this year’s just heartbreaking. One of our workers came in and said, ‘I can’t make my car payment.’”

The Blackfeet Nation, like other Montana tribes, has taken aggressive steps to prevent widespread transmission of COVID-19 among tribal citizens, many of whom, including elders and those with existing health problems, face higher risks of severe consequences from the virus, including hospitalization and death. Indigenous people make up about 7% of Montana’s population but account for 32% of the state’s deaths attributed to the coronavirus, according to state data.

After closing the park’s east entrances in June, tribal leaders earlier this month extended a stay-at-home order for reservation residents through the end of July. They’ve also closed the reservation’s roads to nonessential travel and prohibited recreation on the reservation for nonresidents. 

The tribe’s incident command hasn’t responded to a request for comment. But when the tribe announced it was closing the east entrances, Robert DesRosier, head of the tribe’s COVID-19 incident command, said a reservation full of visitors was “not a risk worth taking. It’s lives versus dollars.”

The tribe’s closures come during a short tourist season when most businesses on the reservation make most of their money. To help make up for the loss, the business owners want Bullock to create a special relief package for businesses like theirs affected by the tribe’s closure, or to be allowed to re-apply for existing state grants. 

“We have lost an entire year’s income in the span of a few weeks, with not much hope that next year will be better. We are stressed — financially, mentally, emotionally. We may lose everything,” the letter said. “We are not asking to be made whole — we don’t expect the people of Montana to pay us not to work.”

Despite the reservation businesses’ unique obstacles, the state’s Department of Commerce doesn’t agree that they should be treated differently from any other Montana business, according to the letter. 

The letter said the business owners had been told by commerce department Bureau of Business Assistance Chief Wayne Johnston that the department “fully understands our situation, and finds us to be collectively in no different position than any other group of businesses in the state.”

Emilie Ritter Saunders, spokeswoman for the Department of Commerce, noted programs like the Business Stabilization Grant Program, which the state created to help businesses affected by the pandemic. In addition, she said, Bullock created the Montana Loan Deferment Program last month specifically to support businesses in the hospitality industry.

Glacier County businesses have received about $1.13 million through the grant program, with 10 businesses that signed the letter collectively receiving about $88,000 of that, according to state data. 

While Ritter Saunders said businesses in the East Glacier area “certainly face a situation unique to their location,” guidelines for the grant program “have been applied equally statewide.” Still, guidelines could evolve or more assistance could become available, she said. 

“Policy considerations are being evaluated in real time, and additional state or federal support systems may still be realized as the long-term impacts of the pandemic become clearer,” Ritter Saunders said. 

Glacier National Park visitors spend a lot of money in the region. In 2018, out-of-state visitors spent about $110.5 million in Glacier County, which includes much of the Blackfeet Reservation. They also spent another $614 million in Flathead County, home to the park’s western entrances. 

With the east entrances closed, Zarycki said she’s seeing much of the spending that would normally go to businesses and employees on the east side of the park flow to Flathead County, where visitors can still access the park. 

Hopefully, she said, Bullock and other state officials at least now have a better understanding of the situation businesses on the reservation face.

“I don’t think they were aware of how much harm has been done,” Zarycki said of state officials. “We don’t want to go against the tribe’s wishes or be disrespectful to their feelings on the virus or how they’re trying to manage it. But we’re sacrificing for the greater good and we need help.”

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Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.