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When will the Smokies reopen? Cherokee plays a part

Reopening the Great Smoky Mountains National Park during the COVID-19 pandemic involves Tennessee, North Carolina, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

CHEROKEE, N.C. — While most state parks in Tennessee partially reopened on April 24, the roadblocks remain in place on the roads to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP).  

Park leaders have already been working on a plan for how to reopen in phases while taking the necessary safety precautions against the spread of COVID-19.  The park has not announced the exact process.  Even more uncertain is when the plan will be implemented.

While much of Tennessee is reopening later this week, the National Park Service also has to consider how reopening will impact both North Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).

Cherokee borders one of the busiest entrances to the Smokies.  In 2019, more than 2.4 million visitors rolled through the Oconaluftee entrance to the park.

Credit: WBIR
Cherokee welcome sign just outside the boundary of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

"It'll be interesting to see how it all plays out," said Richard Sneed, Principal Chief of the EBCI.  "We closed our borders in mid-March. We have six positives (COVID-19 cases) tribal-wide. We've been fortunate for the number to be very low."

Now the tribe weighs when to reopen access to its casino, shops, and a main road to the Oconaluftee entrance to the Smokies.  

"We haven't set a hard date yet. I know the park's eager to reopen. We are eager to reopen. But it's just trying to balance public health and safety and the economics of the situation," said Sneed.

Chief Sneed said the tribe's decision will be heavily influenced by North Carolina's government.  Governor Roy Cooper has said he plans to keep the state closed until May 8 and then reevaluate.

"It would difficult for us to reopen prior to North Carolina's order being lifted. Conversely, it would be hard for us to remain closed while the rest of the state is open. We're kind of playing it by ear at this point. We've kicked around the idea of May 15. But if North Carolina opens May 8, that's going to weigh on our decision-making as well."

Credit: WBIR
EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed

Sneed plans to watch and learn from what happens in other states that are already in the process of reopening.

"We will have the benefit of seeing what happens in Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee.  We cannot stay closed forever. At some point, we're going to have to open back up. We try to come up with the best possible solutions, implement those, and adjust as needed," said Sneed.

When the tribe and national park reopen, Sneed fully expects economic difficulties compared to before the coronavirus pandemic. Capacities and earning potential will be limited as the casino and other sources of revenue are required to maintain safe social distancing.

Sneed said the success of any government's plan will largely depend on the people.

Credit: WBIR
Harrah's Cherokee Casino in Cherokee, North Carolina.

"The worst-case scenario is you have individual citizens going back to the way it was before, thinking it [the pandemic] is over, and kind of throwing caution to the wind. It's going to require all of us to be responsible. I hope we are all well-educated on what it is going to take for us to make things as safe as possible while also reopening," said Sneed.

As for how the casino in Cherokee will operate when it reopens, Chief Sneed said much of that will be dictated by Caesar's corporate leadership.

"Caesar's is working on exact plans for how to operate while protecting the safety of our guests as well as our employees," said Sneed.

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