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Reopening raises questions

(Marisela Amador The Eastern Door)


The decision to open up Kahnawake to non-residents has left some community members questioning their safety.

After a consensus among members of the Kahnawake COVID-19 Task Force, Monday (June 1) marked the official reopening date for non-essential businesses, such as cafes, golf clubs, convenience stores and cigarette stores.

The choice to reopen the community was based on the World Health Organization’s criteria, including a low number of cases, as well as a definite plan to maintain social distancing measures.

“All of these conditions were met,” said Arnold Lazare, former director of Public Safety and member of the Task Force.

In order to reopen, businesses were subject to inspection by the Task Force. Lazare said that businesses must consult the Kateri Memorial Hospital’s website, where store owners and employees can access a comprehensive file of requirements to follow.

“When they’re ready, a pre-inspection can be requested by contacting the Task Force; an inspector will go to the site and make an evaluation and if there are any issues, we’ll identify it and if there’s no issues and certificate will be issued,” said Lazare.

According to Lazare, only one establishment failed to receive their certificate.

On May 29, the Task Force issued a press release advising, “non-residents will only be allowed onto the Territory for the purposes of trade and commerce.”

According to the release, non-residents will be able to access the community from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. and are required to leave “immediately after completion of trade and commerce activities.”

Family members from outside of the territory will also be permitted, in order to lessen stress on the families, according to Lazare.

The Task Force’s decision to reopen Kahnawake to non-locals sparked debate as to whether the reopening is taking place too soon, as well as questioned the lack of consultation with community members.

“There is a concern by some people that it’s too soon, but they are reminded that they didn’t have to open, and people don’t have to go to places that they don’t feel comfortable,” Lazare said. “Maintain a six-foot radius, preferably outdoors. By following these guidelines, people will continue to be safe, based on the science of how the virus moves.”

Lazare added that it’s time for community members to take responsibility and that the Task Force is confident that residents are “intelligent and educated enough” to take the necessary measures required to keep themselves safe.

On Tuesday, Katsitsiio Splicer started an online petition, which has garnered almost 90 signatures so far. The purpose of starting the petition, said Splicer, was to provide a platform for community members to voice their disagreement over the reopening.

“There’s a lot of fear and worry,” said Splicer. “I couldn’t believe that they were opening Kahnawake so soon because of all the measures that were originally put into place to protect the community, such as prohibiting cigarette sales.

“I thought about the few communities and cities that opened too soon and they had a brutal second wave,” she added.

Last Monday, Kahnawake smoke shops opened their doors to an influx of people, something Lloyd Phillips, director of public safety said was expected.

“Dennis,” who owns smoke shops and factories in Kahnawake and did not want to be named, said for most customers “it was like Christmas at Walt Disney,” with long lineups at certain stores on the first day.

The lockdown has had economic impacts on Kahnawake. According to Dennis, he’s expecting a loss of about $30,000 to $40,000, and as a result, has doubled the prices of his products.

“We lost tons of business during the shutdown, that lasted about 70 days,” he said.

“It seems many people think that addiction and money are terrible reasons to put our community at risk,” said Splicer.

The Task Force responded to the community’s concern Tuesday, stating that the number of clients that entered the territory caused an increased level of anxiety among community members.

“We all share these feelings and cannot ignore them,” said Phillips, who added that the Task Force is monitoring the situation carefully and that measures are in place to protect the community’s elders and at-risk population.

Splicer also questioned that the Task Force’s decision was based on “science”, citing that the community should be informed of the data that led to Kahnawake’s eventual reopening.

“What studies and data are guiding your decisions to open the community for non-locals to buy cigarettes?” she asked. “I like to make sure I have all the facts before I take a stance on things, but as of right now, yes, I feel it’s rushed for the sake of cigarettes.”

With community members wary over the recent reopening, Pearl-Ann Diome, owner of Big Bear, expressed her confidence in the Task Force’s ability to “handle this health issue for our entire community.”

Both Diome and her husband Peter are in their mid-seventies, and she has chosen to reopen Big Bear, which sells gas, cigarettes and other convenience items. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those of are 65 years and older have a high-risk for severe illness from COVID-19.

Diome said that she and husband have been watching all of the Task Force’s daily briefings over the last few months, and have been taking every precaution necessary to remain safe, especially considering their age and being at-risk.

“We also want to avoid this virus and live on,” Diome said.

“Considering the circumstances, it has been clearly impossible for [the Task Force] to consult with all the community members, who today feel that they were not consulted.”

Diome added that all businesses in the area have been following the necessary guidelines.

Over at Big Bear, Diome said the store isn’t operating on normal workdays and have reduced their hours to accommodate staff. Staff are also being trained to work in a “protective and hygienic way” to reduce the pressures of working during the pandemic.

Anyone entering the store is required to wear a facemask and sanitize their hands before entering the store. Cashiers are also protected with a plexiglass.

Other businesses in the area are also following similar guidelines. After a one-month hiatus due to the pandemic, Tóta Ma’s Café – a zero-waste cafe in Kahnawake – does not allow any customers in Reopening Continued from page 1 the store. Graysen Moses, the café’s communications and marketing specialist, said there are two ways of ordering: from the takeout window, while maintaining a six-foot distance or calling for pickup.

“We are wearing gloves and masks, accepting contactless tap payments and doing everything we can to maintain the health and safety of our customers and employees,” said Moses. “As long as all of our procedures are being followed there should not be any risk of spread. Most of our customers are community members, to begin with, so it’s not a huge concern, considering we’re in the heart of Kahnawake.”

James Patton, owner of Caughnawaga Golf Club, said there will be limited access to their clubhouse, with every entrance accompanied by hand sanitizer. If customers order from the snack bar, it’s currently limited to the take out window.

“There’s only one person allowed at a time in the clubhouse to go to the washroom. We actually have someone on the deck who’s monitoring that,” said Patton.

Diome acknowledges people’s fears of the virus, however, stated that there are people that are in need in the community and that people need to sustain a livable income.

Gale Leborgne, owner of Peace Pipe Convenience, said the reopening is “nerve-wracking, but I need to be open to keep afloat.”

“People have to make a living, to feed their lives and this is the very best that our Task Force has put together for everyone,” said Diome. “Not everyone will be satisfied, but as we all know, it is up to each and every one of us to take care of ourselves and to protect others.”

Lazare stated that this week marked Phase one of the reopening plan and that Phase two will focus on gaming houses – such as bingo and poker – religious groups, beauty salons and massage businesses.

Lazare said the Task Force is waiting to see what happens with the current opening before making a decision on the next phase.

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