Some of the first tribal casinos are opening back up as many U.S. businesses remain closed, and they are undertaking some big changes, like smoking bans, mask requirements and new technology aimed at keeping slot machines clean.
Coeur D’Alene Casino in northern Idaho was one of the first tribal casinos to reopen May 1 as part of a phased and limited opening. At least one tribe in Washington state did the same with similar restrictions and enhanced safety measures. Other Washington tribes have target dates for reopening in mid-May.
“We modeled our plan based on what people already see with hand sanitizers everywhere, ability to wear gloves, masks,” said Travis O’Neil, general manager of Washington state's Angel of the Winds Casino Resort. “The tribe depends on the casino revenue to support themselves, their tribal members, their plans, their programs.”
Casinos in Indian Country have been shuttered for weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, slashing tribal revenues and affecting hundreds of thousands of workers. With no property tax base, many tribes in the lower 48 depend on tribal gaming to fund essential tribal government services and for jobs.
Some tribes have continued to pay casino staff to stay away, while others furloughed or laid off employees in an effort to save money.
Angel of the Winds, about 45 miles north of Seattle, furloughed 600 workers when it closed nearly two months ago.
The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians owns the casino and resort, and tentatively plans to reopen them May 13. The tribe hasn’t reported any coronavirus cases.
Like other Washington tribes, it has kept a close eye on Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan to reopen the state for guidance. The Democratic governor has been challenged by conservative lawmakers for his stay-at-home order and phased approach.
Inslee has been in communication with tribal leaders and acknowledges tribes' sovereignty, his office said Thursday.
"The governor has said all along people should stay home, but he also does not have jurisdiction over sovereign tribes and wants to be respectful of those relationships," it said in a statement to Indian Country Today. "But, ultimately, the governor would rather people not be going to venues such as casinos right now."
In Washington, 22 tribes operate 29 casinos. Casinos generate more than $2 billion a year and are a top-10 state employer, with 30,000 workers, according to the Seattle Times.
At Angel of the Winds, the biggest change patrons will notice is that it's now smoke-free, making it one of few casinos in Indian Country to dedicate an entire building to no smoking. Most casinos previously dedicated a smaller smoke-free section on the casino floor.
The change was based on the new coronavirus affecting breathing, O’Neil said.
“It’s up to every property to figure out what is best for their situation, but we believe this is best for us,” he said.
Other changes include requiring patrons to wear face masks once inside and requiring employees to wear masks on the gaming floor. Additional sanitizers stations have been added to the gaming floor. Plexiglass barriers have been placed in customer service areas. The gaming floor and slot machines will be regularly wiped.
An expansion in fall 2019 allowed the casino to place machines farther apart and opened up space on the casino floor, which can help with social distancing, O’Neil said.
“We are still monitoring that if we need to turn every other machine off, or third machine,” he said.
The first phase of reopening includes a limit on food and beverage options, and only half the floor will be open. Patrons will be encouraged not to gather in groups. Employees will have their temperatures checked before they are allowed in the building, and each will be asked to take a short questionnaire to best gauge employee health, O’Neil said.
Any requirements or decisions can potentially change on a day-to-day basis, he added.
Table games will remain closed during the initial phase.
The hotel will reopen with limited housekeeping interaction to avoid unnecessary contact. Entertainment events are not planned anytime soon. Some food options will be available with limits on the number of people in the area. Valet will also remain closed initially.
The casino celebrated its 15th anniversary last fall and employs 650. With the reopening, some of its 600 furloughed workers have been brought back but not all, O’Neil said.
“Hopefully when things do get back to whatever the new normal is, we can call them back and back on payroll,” he said.
“People get comfortable with new processes. We’ll take it slow at the beginning,” O’Neil added. “We are going to make mistakes, and we know that. We want them to be small mistakes, not huge ones.”
Tribes across Indian Country have posted detailed safety measures on casino websites and routinely share updates on social media.
In April, the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development estimated that tribal gaming, non-gaming enterprises and tribal governments together support more than 1.1 million jobs and more than $49.5 billion in annual wages across the U.S.
Other Washington tribes targeted early May to reopen only to extend closures. Colville Tribes in the central part of the state were among those to extend their closures. A new reopen date is set for May 19.
“We want to be the right place, for the right time,” said Colville Tribal Federal Corporation CEO Kary Nichols in a statement. “Our No. 1 priority has always been the health and safety of our team members, valued guests and communities.”
Near the Idaho border and Spokane, Wash., Northern Quest Resort and Casino opened Tuesday and within hours reported a $61,000 jackpot winner on social media. “Congratulations to our first big jackpot winner. And thank you Spokane for a fabulous first day back!” the post read.
Casino officials cited needed revenue and a low number of positive coronavirus cases in its area compared to the western part of the state as reasons to reopen.
As of May 5, Spokane County had 373 cases and 23 virus-related deaths, according to MyNorthwest.com. Seattle, one of the first cities in the nation to have a spike in coronavirus cases, is located in King County, and the same site reported 6,621 positive cases and 469 deaths.
The Kalispel Tribe of Indians owns Northern Quest and the smaller Kalispel Casino. The tribe closed the two casinos before the governor implemented statewide restrictions to help “flatten the curve,” casino General Manager Nick Pierre said. Pierre is also a tribal council member.
“We need to get our doors back open, and we’re doing it in a very safe manner,” he said.
“We are known for what we call 'Kalispel hospitality,' making people feel special. Everyone is welcome here. We want to get back to that, and we want to make sure this is a safe and fun environment,” Pierre added.
(More information: Indian Country's COVID-19 syllabus — Data, story summaries, lists of closures, resources)
The casino will be open 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. as part of a phased reopening, and half of its 1,600 slot machines will be in operation. Face masks for patrons are encouraged but not required. Casino workers who work in guest-service areas will wear face masks. New technology has been implemented to notify casino workers when a machine is vacant, so they can clean it between players.
Table games will be open but limited to two patrons at each table, and every other table will be closed. Poker and off-track betting will continue to be closed.
Food options include a noodle restaurant and sports bar with new seating configurations and floor markers for social distancing.
Safety measures have also been implemented for the hotel to promote social distancing. For example, elevator usage will be limited, and occupied rooms will be spaced out from other occupied rooms.
The tribe employed 2,500 people, including its gaming operations. About 1,800 were laid off, while 400 were furloughed, said casino CEO Phil Haugen.
“It’s time for our area to start opening up, and we’re proud to be the leader in this area,” Haugen said. “We’re one of the largest employers in our area, and it's unfortunate a lot of our team members are still trying to get unemployment and everything, and we want to get them back as quickly as possible.”
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter - @daltonwalker
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