CHEROKEE, N.C. — The principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is glad Sevier County will begin requiring masks July 10 to combat a surge in COVID-19 cases.
Principal Chief Richard Sneed required masks in the sovereign tribal lands starting June 26. Cherokee is on the southern end of Newfound Gap Road through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. On the other end of the popular road 35 miles away, masks have been voluntary in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge.
"I'm glad that they are [mandating masks]. In general, our people are very concerned about preserving and protecting the health of our elders," said Chief Sneed. "Native Americans have high instances of diabetes and other underlying conditions that make them more vulnerable to the virus."
Sneed said there has been a visible difference in participation when driving from Cherokee to Tennessee.
"It was a pretty start contrast between what I see when I'm driving around Cherokee, in terms of people wearing masks. When I drove through Pigeon Forge a couple of weeks ago, I don't think I saw anybody wearing masks," said Sneed.
The disparity in policy can lead to some confusion for tourists in the Great Smoky Mountains. Chief Sneed said the main confusion has not been from inconsistencies between the tribe and Sevier County. He said the main problem is mixed messages from leaders in D.C.
"I am of the person opinion we should be listening to our health experts for advice. The issue has been politicized and the messages are inconsistent," said Chief Sneed. "Take the politics out of it, and it's just good common sense [to wear masks]. People's lives are at stake here."
Sneed said he believes it is important to lead by example. He wore a mask for his interview with WBIR until all coworkers left the office. Sneed then removed his mask while alone and speaking to 10News via videoconference.
"It is important for leadership to set an example," said Sneed.
Based on Sneed's experience, he made some predictions on may happen in Sevier County when the mandate takes effect.
"When a mandate is given, there's almost always some push back from a small segment of the population. The challenge we faced is you'll have some businesses that will willingly comply. And you'll have other businesses who will say, 'Well, we're just not complying. We're not requiring our customers to wear masks.' It is difficult as a business owner to see a customer go up to the door, read a sign that says masks are required, and turn away."
Sneed said his executive order comes with the authority to revoke the business licenses of businesses that do not comply with the mask mandate.
"That may seem a bit heavy-handed, but that's how serious we're taking this here. We need to protect our citizens," said Sneed.
Overall, Chief Sneed said the response to the mandate in Cherokee has been positive. He anticipates an adjustment period for Sevier County as tourists and businesses adapt to expectations.
"I think what will happen is within a week or so, people will become accustomed to it and it just becomes the norm," said Sneed.