The Bois Forte Reservation Tribal Council has been reminding its 3,500 members to continue wearing masks, as the coronavirus continues to spread in northern Minnesota.

Chairwoman Cathy Chavers last month announced the band’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 detected in a member living on the Vermilion portion of the three-sector reservation north of the Iron Range. The individual went into quarantine and has since recovered.

As of Monday, July 13, the Bois Forte Clinics tested 48 people in Nett Lake and 47 in Vermilion. All individuals tested negative for the virus.

“We have zero active cases on the reservation right now,” Chavers said during a briefing last Thursday.

The Bois Forte Reservation is surrounded by St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties, which have been reporting increased numbers of coronavirus cases. In recent weeks, the virus has infected a youth student-athlete in Virginia and several workers at United Taconite, Minorca and Minntac, the three remaining operating mines in the region.

As of Monday, St. Louis County (estimated Pop. 200,000) reported 284 cases of the coronavirus and 16 related deaths.

Itasca (Pop: 45,000) had 96 cases and 12 deaths.

Koochiching (Pop: 12,450) had 37 cases and two deaths.

As of last Saturday, the federal Indian Health Services reported 506 tested positive for COVID-19 in the Bemidji area.

The Bois Forte Band has about 500-700 members who live on the reservation in Nett Lake and Vermilion, while the majority live in Minneapolis. The band, which has largely mirrored state orders but remains a sovereign nation independent of the governor’s decisions, has been promoting mask-wearing since the onset of the coronavirus in Minnesota.

The tribal nation initially restricted traveling on-and-off the reservation and required government staff to wear masks to protect their indigenous community members who suffer underlying health conditions at higher rates per capita than white neighbors who reside in the surrounding St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties. In late March, the band imposed the Stay Home, Stay Safe order directing members to remain in their homes unless they must buy food, get medical care or perform other essential activities.

Tribal leaders had cautioned members that the coronavirus was nearing the boundaries of the reservation and asked them to continue practicing social distancing while the band reopened the Fortune Bay Casino Resort and outdoor amenities bound to draw in outsiders to the nearby lakes.

In her latest update from the reservation, Chavers spoke as Walmart announced it would require customers to begin wearing masks inside the stores across the country beginning Monday. The news increased the growing politicized divide on the Iron Range, where people are either choosing to follow federal and state suggestions to wear masks while practicing social distancing or argue against such measures. The following day, Target and CVS joined national retailers to mandate mask-wearing among staff and customers.

The Stay Home, Stay Safe order remains in effect today, and the tribal government buildings in Nett Lake and Vermilion are still closed to the public bar scheduled appointments, as the band continues to promote mask-wearing and social distancing.

“I’m sure this is something that will come up in the future because the pandemic as we know is increasing in areas to the south of us and it may increase in areas around us,” Chaver said. “But right now, we’re doing OK. But precaution is key.”


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