Tribal casinos begin announcing closures this weekend to keep up with the fast-growing coronavirus pandemic.
The San Manuel Band of Mission Indians said "wholeheartedly stand with all of those directly and indirectly affected" by the pandemic. The announcement was made Saturday night. The casino will close at 5 pm on Sunday. The casino will be closed through the end of the month.
"The health and safety of our guests, team members, and Tribal Citizens is our highest priority," the news release said. "We feel this is the best course of action for our community."
San Manuel said during the closure it will continue to pay employees.
San Manuel was one of the first tribal governments to take action, limiting travel for its employees and canceling public events including its annual philanthropic lunch.
Saturday night the Pechanga Casino and Resort announced it would be temporarily closing. "The closure will be effective Monday, March 16th at 12PM through the end of March," the casino said on its Facebook page.
“As a Tribal Government and major employer of thousands of people, we have made the difficult decision to temporarily close Pechanga Resort Casino for the health and safety of our Team Members, Tribal Members, and guests due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tribal Chairman Mark Macarro. "No matter what, the Pechanga family will rise to this challenge together with the strength, compassion, determination, and resilience that our ancestors instilled in us.”
Pechanga Team Members will receive their base pay and benefits during this temporary closure.
On Monday the Pueblo of Pojoaque will close its three casinos for two weeks.
In a news release Saturday the pueblo said it voluntarily made the decision to cease gambling operations beginning 4 am Monday.
“Our highest priority has always been the health and safety of our Team Members, our Guests and our Community” said Governor Joseph M. Talachy. "Although there have been no known cases of COVID-19 on any of the Pueblo of Pojoaque businesses, we are suspending operations at our three casinos: Buffalo Thunder Resort Casino, Cities of Gold Casino and Jake’s Casino, out of an abundance of caution and to promote the social distancing recommended by health officials."
The news release said employees will be paid during the two-week closure and all of the social service programs as well as all other businesses operated by the Pueblo of Pojoaque will remain open. The three hotels on the Pueblo, The Hilton at Buffalo Thunder, Homewood Suites and Cities of Gold Hotel will all remain open.
“Our team is committed to creating a safe and healthy environment for all of our customers and our employees." Talachy said. “Know that as our forefathers always did, we shall flourish and thrive long after this time has passed.”
Tribes that have announced closures of casinos include:
-- Glacier Peaks Casino and Lil Peaks Casino, Blackfeet, Montana.
Other tribal enterprises and the casino industry itself is still debating a course of action.
Some tribal casinos have posted, mostly on Facebook, about plans to continue operations but include a new cleaning protocol.
The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise posted a notice saying it is closing the food buffets as a precaution. The nation operates four casinos in two states.
Carla Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Indian Gaming Association, spent a busy Friday the 13th on the phone contacting as many tribal casino operations in Arizona. By late afternoon she had comments from approximately four. Had any mentioned closing their doors?
“At this moment, no,” she said. “I know that all the tribes are closely following the direction provided by the Center for Disease Control. They are also increasing sanitation stations.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation operates four locations and has increased hand sanitizer stations and have enhanced their cleaning procedures with state of the art disinfectant equipment.
Apache Gold operated by the San Carlos Apache Tribe issues a release saying, among other sanitation protocols, that all cups have been removed from the courtesy drink stations to prevent unnecessary touching. “All cups will be handed to our Guests by gloved Team Members,” wrote CEO Matt Olin.
On March 6 Johnson said the association held its monthly meeting and brought in a physician to talk to tribal leadership about the coronavirus. “We provided the presentation from the doctor, he shared his views and links to on-line support for this,” Johnson said.
From that meeting a week ago, Johnson says tribes immediately implemented new protocols. “They are also continuing educating their employees in the prevention of illness. They are posting hand washing reminders for both employees and patrons."
The Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan closed two of its casinos.
Chairman Bryan Newland said: “We're in the hospitality business ... we're not chasing people away, but we don't wanna put money over people's health either. If you're 65 years old, and you have COPD or you're recovering from lung cancer, you should probably not be out in public right now touching things other people are touching.”
Oklahoma casinos continue to operate with increased sanitation stations. The WinStar World Casino and Resort, owned by the Chickasaw Nation, said it continues to monitor the situation. "We have significantly enhanced our cleaning and disinfecting, particularly in the heavy traffic areas of our property," the casino said on its Facebook page. "Additionally, our facilities undergo thorough cleaning daily to protect against transmission of communicable disease, including the coronavirus."
However WinStar and several other have shut down planned concerts.
"We have made the decision to postpone all concerts at the Global Event Center for the month of March. While we pride ourselves on providing world-class entertainment to our patrons, our top priority is your health and safety," WinStar said.
The Washington Indian Gaming Association issued a media release echoing the new sanitation protocols the Arizona tribal casinos are taking.
“Tribes are committed to maintaining safe and healthy communities and businesses. We rely on gaming to provide revenue for essential services and self-sufficiency. Simply put, gaming allows us to provide housing, healthcare, education, natural resources and jobs,” wrote Rebecca Kaldor, the executive director.
W. Ron Allen, chairman and CEO of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, also commented in the release, “We are doing all we can to avoid shuttering these important business enterprises because of the devastating economic and personal impact closure would have on both tribal and non-tribal communities. But the health of our guests, employees and community are our top priority, so we will continue to monitor and evaluate the situation as it unfolds.”
The tribal casino employees are adhering to the state’s directive to limit events to 250 people and employees are following guidelines that limit business travel.
In Las Vegas a casino hotel already has reported an incident. The Southern Nevada Health District announced last week that there are three new presumed positive cases of COVID-19 in Clark County, bringing the total to 5 , plus seven across the state.
MGM Resorts said a woman from New York had attended the Women of Power Summit at The Mirage hotel-casino on the Las Vegas Strip.
MGM also announced it was closing the buffets at its casinos, including Aria, Bellagio, Excalibur, Luxor, MGM Grand, Mandalay Bay, and The Mirage.
In Ohio, the state's Casino Control Commission ordered the state's casinos to close after an order by Gov. Mike DeWine barring gatherings of more than 100 people.
California Governor Gavin Newsom on Thursday said he was in talks with tribal leadership about casino closures in that state but he didn’t mention which tribes he is speaking with. California has 35 tribal casinos.
The California Nations Indian Gaming Association website did not have any notices posted.
Nor does the National Indian Gaming Association website. But one day ago it did postpone the 2020 Indian Gaming Tradeshow and Convention that was set for late March in San Diego, California.
Chairman Ernie Stevens, Jr. said in the release, “The health and safety of our tribal gaming attendees are of paramount concern and postponing the Indian Gaming Tradeshow, for now, is the safest course of action. Our Board of Directors and Association staff will work diligently on the best path forward for all impacted attendees in light of this postponement.”
Across the country at the Foxwoods Resort Casino, owned and operated by the Pequot Nation in Connecticut, is a notice on its Facebook page. “Foxwoods Cares About Your Health,” and lists that more than 330 new sanitizing stations have been added. The notice says casino management is monitoring the latest news and consulting with the tribe’s chief medical officer as well as local authorities to determine what events to close and perhaps eventually, the casino.
Understandably, closing tribal casinos will have a huge impact on the hundreds of thousands of employees and the states that receive revenue sharing profits.
In Arizona alone tribal casinos employ more than 15,000 people, Johnson says. Last June the Arizona Department of Gaming reported contributions from tribal gaming revenue was approximately $26.9 million for the previous quarter.
“As Arizona’s economy continues to thrive, we have now seen nine (9) consecutive quarters of strong and steady growth in tribal gaming contributions to the state,” wrote Directo Ted Vogt. “Our tribal-state gaming partnership funds critical services and programs that benefit Arizonans’ quality of life, such as making sure that hospital trauma services are available on a 24-hour, seven days per week basis.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, that gaming revenue could be critical for such health facilities.
Patty Talahongva, Hopi, is the executive producer for Indian Country Today based in Phoenix. Twitter: @witespider.