Casino closed to ‘make sure no one gets lost, no one'

Governor Joseph M. Talachy, Pueblo of Pojoaque, on the last night of Buffalo Thunder's operations before closing because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

Patty Talahongva

Updated 2:30 pm MST: Casinos across the country face a tough decision about business during a pandemic

“We’re shutting down to make sure that this disease, the coronavirus, is defeated,” said Governor Joseph M. Talachy, Pueblo of Pojoaque. He said the goal is to make sure that “no one gets lost, no one.”

The disease has the potential to hurt many people, especially our elders.

He turns to history to tell the story. “Throughout our history,” he said, “we've faced many, many challenges. You know, we've adapted and we've overcome. We are resilient then and will be resilient as we move into the future. We will overcome this.”

“We look at it just like any other adversary,” he said. “Our goal is ultimately to defeat this, to get through it, to live through it to prosper through it.”

Buffalo Thunder is the region’s largest employer and Talachy said the roughly 700 employees would remain on payroll during the two-week closure. The pueblo’s three hotels will continue to operate. There are no known cases of COVID-19 so the pueblo’s action is ahead of the curve.

“We're a very small tribe,” the governor said. “I have five daughters of my own.” He said his oldest is in college and his youngest was born about a month and a half ago.

Other New Mexico tribes have also announced or closed their casinos. The Santa Ana Star Casino and hotel closed Sunday at midnight. A message on Facebook said: “The Star is closed - Please stay home and be safe!"

We see the closure of our facility as simply the right thing to do," Tamaya Enterprises Board of Directors Chairwoman Melanie Martinez said to KOAT television station. "Although this temporary closure will have a significant financial impact for us, we understand that we have benefited from both our fellow citizens and team members. Now is the time for us to make responsible and ethical decisions with the best interest of everyone in mind."

Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby announced the closure of the nation’s 22 casinos this afternoon.

“We are closing all casinos operated by the Chickasaw Nation as a way to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and protect the health and well-being of our citizens. Casinos will close at midnight tonight and remain closed through March 31, 2020,” Governor Anoatubby said. “We are continuing to engage with federal and state officials to develop a coordinated plan to mitigate the health impacts, as well as the economic and social impacts, caused by the spread of this disease.

Employees will be compensated, Governor Anoatubby said.

“It is encouraging that businesses, organizations and governments across the United States are taking a proactive approach to help stem the spread of COVID-19. It is imperative we continue working together to meet the challenges this outbreak presents to the health and well-being of people across the world,” he said. “We encourage everyone around the state and across the U.S. to make informed, conscious decisions regarding their own health and safety, and consider those people around them.” 

Image from iOS-2
Santa Ana Star Casino announced its closure on its billboard. (Photo by Aliyah Chavez, Indian Country Today)

Over the weekend three major California casinos said they would suspend operations. The San Manuel Casino, Augustine Casino and Pechanga Resort Casino closed Sunday through the end of the month.

In Montana, the Glacier Peaks Casino said that given Montana’s new cases of coronavirus it was time to take preemptive action. “This action supports the Blackfeet Tribe’s efforts to combat the virus and to ensure the safety of all community members,” the casino said on its Facebook page.

“We are doing our best here at Bay Mills to take care of our community public health AND our employees, wrote Chairman Bryan Newland of Bay Mills Indian Community on Facebook. “I know that a lot of smaller gaming tribes (i.e. those that operate casinos as a jobs program) are going to be asked to follow suit with larger gaming tribes that can better bear these costs. Please have some understanding if they take longer to reach a similar decision point - it is very painful.”

The Bay Mills news release said the casino would be closed tentatively until April 10th.

And the Pokagon Gaming Authority will close all of its Four Winds Casino locations in Michigan and Indiana beginning at 3 a.m. Eastern on Tuesday, March 17, through March 30 for now.

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced today that the state is ordering restaurants and bars to be takeout or delivery only, and is closing down gyms, movie theaters, and casinos.

“All casinos will be closed effective 8 p.m. tonight and they will stay closed until further notice,” said Cuomo during a press conference from Albany, New York. But that would only apply to state-licensed facilities.

Of the eight federally-recognized tribes in New York, three own casinos. The St. Regis Mohawk Tribe owns the Akwesasne Mohawk Casino Resort and the Mohawk Bingo Palace. The Seneca Nation operates Seneca Allegany Casino, Seneca Niagara Casino and Seneca Buffalo Creek Casino. Oneida Nation owns Turning Stone Resort Casino, Yellow Brick Road Casino and Point Place Casino.

The Muckleshoot Tribe in Washington is seeking a work around. According to the Auburn Reporter the tribal casino is limiting its numbers to 250 people, following an order by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “To follow the state directives and to establish enhanced social distancing measures, concert events at the casino’s nightclub area will be kept to under 250 attendees,” the Auburn Reporter said.

The paper quoted general manager Conrad Granito saying: “Our focus continues to be proactive on how we can best protect the health of everyone under our roof, from our guests to our team members.”

Associations for Oklahoma and Arizona tribal casinos continue to say they are monitoring the situation and following sanitization practices.

Las Vegas casinos have also begun to close operations. Sunday Wynn Resorts and MGM Resorts announced that it would close its casinos on the Las Vegas strip.

"Despite our commitment to dedicating additional resources for cleaning and promoting good health, while making difficult decisions to close certain aspects of our operations, it is now apparent that this is a public health crisis that requires major collective action if we are to slow its progression," Jim Murren, chairman and CEO of MGM Resorts, said in a statement. "This is a time of uncertainty across our country and the globe and we must all do our part to curtail the spread of this virus. We will plan to reopen our resorts as soon as it safe to do so and we will continue to support our employees, guests, and communities in every way that we can during this period of closure."

Tribal casinos have said they will continue to pay employees. But that’s not the case across the gaming industry. Wynn Resorts said it will continue to pay employees. But MGM is planning to layoff at least some of its employees.

MGM Resorts has had several employees test positive for the coronavirus. "We expect that there will be more in the coming days," MGM Resorts President Bill Hornbuckle wrote in a letter to employees announcing layoffs would start next week.

What happens when a casino owner is forced to close a hotel. The costs don't go away, only the revenue. And for how long? That's a major question facing the casino industry right now. And tribes and corporate gaming companies are often coming up with different answers.

Indeed, across the country, tribes have taken quick action when it comes to the functions of government.

Quinault President Fawn Sharp said the nation was closing all but essential services. “This emergency measure will last at least for the next 5 days, after which we will assess the most appropriate next steps to protect our citizens from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Sharp wrote in a memo to tribal employees.

“Quinault citizens can rest assured that we take this global crisis seriously and are relying on the best available science and emergency management best practices to maximize the safety of our Nation, citizens, and employees.”

However Quinault Beach Resort and Casino remained open Monday. “We have taken the step of temporarily closing our Buffet (nawiɫɪn) because we believe in being proactive and doing the right thing,” the casino said on its Facebook page. “We are expecting to reopen the buffet for our beloved Easter Buffet and yet we will monitor the situation and publicize the reopen date as soon as safely possible.”

The Navajo Nation said Friday it was taking proactive steps to reduce the number of "on duty" employees in the executive branch for the next three weeks. That action does no include public safety personnel, firefighters, EMS personnel, Department of Emergency Management, Division of Finance, Division of Social Services, and others that provide essential direct services.

The Navajo Nation refers to COVID-19 as “Diko Ntsaaígíí-Náhást’éíts’áadah” in the Navajo language.

“The health and well-being of our Navajo people is the top priority. There are no confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus on the Navajo Nation, however under the careful advisement of health experts, emergency preparedness personnel, and other experts the Navajo Nation COVID-19 Preparedness Team continues to move forward with preventive measures to ensure the safety and well-being of the Navajo people,” said President Nez. 

IMG_20200316_031606
Buffalo Thunder Casino and Resort (Photo by Patty Talahongva, Indian Country Today)

At the Buffalo Thunder Casino, Governor Talachy said the decision to close came out of government discussions. He said tribal leaders were asking, “What can we do to protect the safety, health and welfare of our people? And last week, we took the action of closing down the Pueblo and reducing our staff to only the absolute necessary staff that we need.”

That, he said, prompted a discussion about the casino.

“We started thinking, hey, you know, we don't know where this thing's going. It could be coming at us,” he said. “What can we do to make sure that our employees or visitors or guests, our tribal members especially are protected? And we all came to the same kind of conclusion that, you know, we're gonna have to shut shut the casinos down.”

Talachy said this was a moment to take the lead. “I hadn't had the chance to talk to any of the tribal leaders. But we figured we might as well jump first … the sooner this thing blows over, the sooner we can get back operational and recovering.”

Since then he said he’s reached out to other tribal leaders and told them this is an act of sovereignty. “We have the ability and the capability to move quickly,” he said. “One of the main goals of doing this was to try and prompt other people to take the same action. You know, I've talked to other tribes since and I've told them, you know, ‘governors, presidents, you know, you have your tribal sovereignty, I'm not going to tell you what to do this, these are the reasons why we did it.’”

But while it was a tough decision “I can sleep at night knowing that we did everything necessary to protect our community and our pueblo.”

Indian Country Today - small phone logo

Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is the executive producer for Indian Country Today based in Phoenix. Twitter: @witespider.

Indian Country Today's Mark Trahant, Dalton Walker and Jourdan Bennett-Begaye contributed to this report.

COVID-19 coverage from IndianCountryToday.com

Indian Country Today is updating its list of Native events that are cancelled, postponed or affected by COVID-19. To add information, contact our reporter with the name of the event and link to the announcement.

**

Indian Country Today, LLC., is a non-profit, public media enterprise. Reader support is critical. We do not charge for subscriptions and tribal media (or any media, for that matter) can use our content for free. Our goal is public service. Please join our cause and support independent journalism today. We have an audacious plan for 2020 and your donation will help us make it so. #MyICT #MyVoiceMyICT 

Comments

News

FEATURED
COMMUNITY