Sovereign casinos under no obligation to abide by state and local ordinances

Unbound By Shutdown Mandates, US Tribal Casinos Slowly Start To Reopen

This is a developing story. Last updated May 6.

According to the American Gaming Association (AGA), there are 989 brick-and-mortar casinos in the US. All these casinos closed in March, and 985 of them remain closed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The first to reopen was Coeur d’Alene Casino, a tribal property located on its namesake reservation in Idaho. It opened its doors again last week upon expiration of the governor’s stay-at-home order. A second Idaho casino, Northern Quest, joined it on Wednesday.

Two Oklahoma establishments likewise reopened early this week, 7 Clans First Council Casino and Tonkawa Casino.

Island Casino in Michigan was originally expected to join the list on Wednesday as well. It ultimately reconsidered its decision amid significant public pushback, however, and will remain closed for the time being.

In most states, the wait for casinos to reopen will likely prove to be significantly longer. Commercial properties can’t even consider welcoming guests back until officials allow it.

Indian tribes, on the other hand, are sovereign nations unbound by the mandates of any state government. While most are electing to comply with local ordinances voluntarily, they are under no obligation to keep their casinos closed.

Cautious reopening for Coeur d’Alene

Many casinos already have precautions in place for their eventual reopening, and Coeur d’Alene has adopted some of the most commonly suggested measures. These include:

  • Guests have their temperature taken by infrared thermometer before admission.
  • Guests must wear masks; the casino will supply them as needed.
  • Only every second slot machine is available for play.
  • The casino doesn’t have table games, but seating for the bingo hall has been reduced.
  • Plexiglass shields are installed anywhere guests come in close contact with staff.
  • Side entrances are closed so as to control traffic.
  • Hand sanitizer stations are positioned throughout the property.

Naturally, the casino has also stepped up its cleaning protocols. Staff make the rounds with increased frequency and pay special attention to touch surfaces like door handles and slot buttons. The property, ordinarily open 24 hours, now closes from 3 a.m. to 7 a.m. each day for deep cleaning.

Successful results encourage additional reopenings

Coeur d’Alene had line up to half a mile long to get in over the weekend and had to start turning guests away by mid-afternoon. Saturday night’s table drop was the highest in the casino’s history.

Reviews by the first customers to return suggest that they’re happy with the measures in place. Of course, only time will tell whether they prove to be effective or prove the reopening to be premature. Idaho is a state with few recorded COVID-19 infections, however, even in per-capita terms.

Even if the reopening proves safe and successful for Coeur d’Alene, things might not go so smoothly elsewhere.

Northern Quest, another Idaho casino, will be reopening on Thursday and says it will not require masks for its guests. It will, however, encourage them to wear masks voluntarily, and will require them for most staff. These looser precautions should prove popular among those who feel the threat of the disease has been exaggerated, but will surely draw criticism from others.

In Oklahoma, most tribes have elected to hold off on reopening for the time being. Some, like Lucky Star Casinos, might open within a few weeks. They will, however, be watching what happens with 7 Clans and Tonkawa as they continue to develop their own plans.

Meanwhile in South Dakota, one town is taking matters into its own hands.

Deadwood has declared that all businesses, including casinos, can reopen this Thursday. The town’s economy is largely based on hospitality, tourism and gaming, so the pressure to reopen has been strong. It has well over a dozen casinos, and those that choose to reopen will be the first non-tribal casinos in the country to do so.

Island Casino exercises tribal sovereignty, but delays reopening

The Michigan Gaming Control Board ordered all of the state’s casinos to shut down in mid-March, a decision subsequently backed up by gubernatorial mandate. Only the three commercial casinos in Detroit were actually obligated to follow the directive, but the state’s 24 tribal properties all complied voluntarily.

Island Casino said that it would be the first to exercise its tribal sovereignty and reopen before the state grants approval. It planned to do so while following standards and procedures laid out by the National Indian Gaming Commission.

These precautions are similar to those already in effect at Coeur d’Alene. Unlike that casino, Island also has table games, poker, a spa, and a convention center. It has no plans to reopen these for the time being. It did, however, say that it would reopen its bars and restaurants in limited fashion and serve food and beverages in disposable takeout containers.

On Tuesday, however, just one day before its scheduled reopening, the casino elected to pull the plug on the plan.  Citing “unforeseen circumstances,” it pushed its reopening date back to Saturday, May 16.

It’s unclear exactly what caused the change of plan. However, there’s one important difference between Island’s situation and Coeur d’Alene’s, namely the high infection rate in Michigan. It currently has 440 cases per 100,000 residents compared to just 120 for Idaho. The overall risk from a viral outbreak also tends to increase with population density, and Michigan has nearly five times as many people per square mile as Idaho.

Reopening casinos a polarizing issue

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered commercial casinos to remain closed until at least May 28, and most of the tribal casinos in her state have fallen in line.

Island initially faced harsh criticism for its decision to defy those instructions, with some even predicting that it will cause a renewed outbreak. Others are concerned for the health of employees, who will be forced to choose between returning to work or losing what benefits they’ve received while on furlough.

There are plenty of people in the opposing camp, however. Like many states, Michigan is dealing with protestors — many of them armed — who see the shutdown as an infringement on their constitutional rights.

The situation is likely to be similar anywhere that casinos consider reopening, with or without state approval. Opinions on appropriate pandemic response run the gamut from a full shutdown until the virus is eradicated, to doing nothing and letting it run its course unimpeded and everything in between.

Most states looking at June for reopening

Elsewhere in the US, things are much more up in the air. In most cases, the timeline for casinos to reopen remains vague at best.

Many of the hardest-hit states are still under stay-at-home orders, for starters. That includes much of New England and the surrounding area, where population density and international travel hubs have created a high rate of infection.

In Massachusetts, for example, Gov. Charlie Baker has extended business closures and a stay-at-home advisory until at least May 18. While Pennsylvania is looking at loosening its restrictions, casinos will not be included in the early phases of the reopening plan. The same will likely hold true as New Jersey rolls out its blueprint.

On the opposite coast, California is currently looking at starting to reopen most businesses — including casinos — in early June. Many other states have similar timelines in mind.

That all depends on how the coronavirus curve progresses, however. It should be apparent by now that additional delays are probable, especially in the case of an anticipated second wave.

Phased reopenings the norm in Nevada, elsewhere

Nevada may start reopening its casinos a bit earlier than other states. The state’s gambling industry is simply too important to its overall economy to leave them closed a day longer than necessary.

Exactly how soon that might be is a bone of contention between the state and regional governments.

Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman recently sparked controversy by imploring Gov. Steve Sisolak to allow her city to reopen immediately. She told national news outlets that she was willing to let Las Vegas serve as a “control group” for the relaxation of social-distancing protocols.

Despite Goodman’s pleas, however, it looks as if it will be at least a few more weeks before the first Las Vegas casinos reopen. Memorial Day, May 25, is one date that has been floated.

Already, the Nevada Gaming Commission has issued guidelines to casino operators to follow when they do reopen. There is one set for full-sized casinos and another for smaller gambling establishments. The latter include bars and restaurants equipped with a limited number of gaming machines.

Large operators with multiple establishments, like Station Casinos and MGM, have already indicated that they plan to reopen in phases. Not all entertainment options — or even properties — will be brought back at once.

It may be many months, perhaps even a year or more, before business is fully back to normal for casinos in Nevada and throughout the US.

- Alex is a journalist from Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada. Now site runner for Online Poker Report, he has been writing about poker and the online gambling industry in various capacities since 2014.
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