Racist policies have led to COVID-19 being more dangerous and deadly for Black, Latino, Asian and Indigenous Americans than for white Americans.
When Kevin Kickingwoman, a teacher who lives in Browning, Montana, checked in to the Wingate by Wyndham hotel in Great Falls, Montana, Tuesday evening, an employee at the desk allegedly told him the hotel does not serve people from Browning due to the Blackfeet Nation’s stay-at-home directive due to coronavirus.
Kevin planned to get back surgery in Great Falls, which is two hours from Browning, early Wednesday, and his daughter and her mother, who live in Missoula, Montana, which is close to three hours from Great Falls, met him at the hotel.
Kevin’s daughter, Sharen, 26, took to Twitter after the incident.
“How come they will still serve people from Missoula? We have high covid numbers, (expletive) every where across the state has high numbers at this point. Sounds like some racist picking and choosing.. is this your policy, Wingate Hotels?” she tweeted Tuesday evening.
Wingate by Wyndham hotel in Great Falls (Photo: NORA MABIE/TRIBUNE PHOTO)
Larry Gooldy, general manager of the hotel, said the hotel does not accept guests from any state that has a COVID-19 lockdown. The Blackfeet Nation’s stay-at-home order, which was recently extended through Nov. 8, exempts certain activities, including leaving the reservation to obtain medical services and groceries, and nowhere in the order does the tribe ask businesses located off the reservation to enforce its directive.
Gooldy told the Great Falls Tribune, which is part of the USA TODAY Network, if guests are from Browning, which is the headquarters for the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, they must present either a verified doctor’s note, with their name and date of visit, or a document from the Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command, saying the person is allowed to leave the reservation.
Gooldy said guests have shown him such travel permits, but the tribe’s public information officer Jim McNeely said that is untrue and those forms do not exist.
The Blackfeet COVID-19 Incident Command (Photo: BLACKFEET COVID-19 INCIDENT COMMAND)
“The Blackfeet Tribe is currently looking into this matter and will keep the public updated,” McNeely said in a statement Wednesday.
Gooldy said his policy applies to all states with COVID-19 quarantine orders.
“Anytime that there’s a lockdown in the United States from any location, we post it up here, and they don’t get a stay,” Gooldy said. “Like we had California guests in here when their state was in lockdown initially. And they didn’t get to stay here at the Wingate in Great Falls. But I wasn’t called a racist either.”
When the Kickingwoman family explained Kevin was getting surgery the next day, Sharen said the employee asked for proof, so Kevin emailed the manager a doctor’s note. Gooldy said the doctor’s note did not have the patient’s name or time of visit, but that his employee alerted him of the situation and checked them in.
The family checked in to the hotel for about 30 minutes but decided to leave and stay somewhere else.
Sharen said her mother, who made the reservation, still had not received a refund as of Wednesday afternoon, but Gooldy said the family was refunded $72.96.
“I definitely don’t want to stay somewhere that doesn’t support Native people,” Sharen tweeted Tuesday. “The Great Falls economy is literally driven by Native communities. This is so messed up.”
Gooldy said the hotel policy is in place for safety reasons and that he is following suggestions from the Cascade City-County Health Department (CCHD).
“I was advised by the City-County Health Department … that if we need to, we can impose any type of restriction as a private business for the safety and sanctity of those folks that are staying,” he said.
CCHD issued a statement saying, “CCHD Health Officer Trisha Gardner recalls speaking with the manager several months ago. Businesses do have the right to implement stricter COVID-19 protective measures but should seek their own legal counsel when doing so. CCHD did not assist in developing this specific policy (of turning away guests based on where they live).”
The Blackfeet Nation reported 153 total active COVID-19 cases on the reservation on Tuesday. Missoula County, had 749 total active cases that day. Cascade County, where the hotel is located, had 939 active cases Tuesday.
Wingate has over 100 franchise properties worldwide, which are independently owned and operated. A representative from the corporate franchise said Gooldy’s policy was a local, not a corporate, decision.
“Our core values call for being inclusive and welcoming of all and we reject racism and discrimination of any kind. While this is a franchised location, meaning it’s independently owned and operated, we take these allegations seriously and are investigating with the hotel and its management team,” Rob Myers, spokesman for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts, which owns Wingate, said in a statement.
Rep. Barbara Bessette, D-Great Falls (Photo: STATE OF MONTANA)
Rep. Barbara Bessette, D-Great Falls, said she has stayed at the Wingate hotel in Helena for pleasure, business and legislative work. She denounced the Great Falls hotel’s policy.
“While caution is certainly necessary during this unprecedented health crisis, discrimination is never acceptable,” she said. “Unfortunately, these kind of incidents happen everyday in Great Falls. Many go unnoticed, and it’s important to stand up, speak out and shed light on these injustices. Everybody should be welcomed and feel safe in our city.”
As Sharen’s Facebook and Twitter posts about the incident amassed online traffic, commenters wrote they had heard of similar incidents at the Wingate.
Three months ago, a woman with the screenname Hannah BC left a Google review for the hotel, saying “Would rate 0 if possible. Wouldn’t let Native American family book a room. Said they refuse because all Natives are infected with COVID-19!”
Browning, Montana (Photo: Tom Bauer, AP)
Gooldy responded to the review.
“Well let’s deal with reality. … So when this Hotel says we do not take a guest that is not supposed to be traveling I wonder why that is???? Could it be that you are not supposed to be traveling as you are an infection risk…I wonder…. Well it does not matter as I did not make the restriction but I will also not let a person bully its way into a hotel and pose an infection risk when you are not to be traveling. The item has been (referred) to the Browning BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and they will be following up at this point. For others that want to try and do so. Please read and know your restrictions for travel. I run a hotel and am not here to educate you on what you are supposed to be doing.”
Gooldy confirmed he had followed up with the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“I faxed them the information that they asked for at the time because the individual chose to write a review saying that we’re racist, and to sit there and basically dispute on the side of the hotel saying you’re under a lockdown. You’re not following your own mandates of what you’re supposed to be doing and not traveling and you’re here in Great Falls demanding a room from a hotel. Why is that?” he told the Tribune.
While Gooldy spoke with the Tribune, two girls approached the front desk he was working to purchase items. When they left, Gooldy said to the reporter:
“So, let me ask you something, two individuals there, where are they from?”
When the reporter responded she didn’t know, he said, “What, what are they, though? What’s their race?”
When she again said she didn’t know, he replied the girls were “Native American, not from Browning and not in a quarantine, but yet staying in my hotel.”
“So, do I, do I, uh, or does this hotel implement a thing of racism?” he asked.
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