Two Olympia area casinos — Little Creek Casino Resort near Shelton and Nisqually Red Wind Casino — have announced they’ll reopen Monday, following closures that began in mid-March because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The reopenings come with long lists of policies and precautions that will be introduced in an effort to safeguard visitors.
Thurston County’s other casino, the Chehalis Tribe’s Lucky Eagle Casino and Hotel, has indicated it won’t consider reopening to the public until next month. But the Puyallup Tribe announced Thursday it, too, will reopen its Emerald Queen Casino in Fife on Monday, Tacoma News Tribune reports.
Little Creek and Red Wind both will be 100% smoke-free, according to their online announcements. Visitors will have their IDs and temperatures checked, and each guest will be required to wear a mask that covers their nose and mouth.
Half of the slot machines have been removed at Little Creek and capacity will be at 50%, while half of Red Wind’s slot machines have been turned off, according to its announcement. Protocols to extensively, frequently sanitize are in place at both locations.
“As the Indian gaming industry looks to reopen, each sovereign nation is developing a responsible safety and health plan for their patrons, employees, and economic welfare,” Ray Peters, intergovernmental affairs liaison for the Squaxin Island Tribe and chief operating officer of the Little Creek Casino Resort, told The Olympian in a phone interview Friday.
The decision to open Monday was made with data as the primary consideration, Peters said — specifically, the number of cases of COVID-19 in Mason and Thurston counties.
As of Friday afternoon, Mason had reported 31 total confirmed positive cases of the disease with one death and six cases active. Thurston was reporting 126 cases with one death and 10 patients being actively monitored by county Public Health.
“We understand that things will be changing and we will be nimble, because we will be looking at and assessing data on a daily basis,” Peters said. The casino provides updates on its website.
As important as the data, Peters said, was establishing a safety plan for all areas of the property so reopening is responsible. Casino management was able to learn from other industries that stayed open, such as the grocery industry, Peters said.
By Friday, employees had gone through orientation to execute the plan, Peters told The Olympian. For example, it requires staff to wipe down machines as people leave them.
Economic welfare of Mason County and tribal government factored into the decision to reopen “secondarily,” Peters said.
The casino employs more than 700 people in Mason County, he said, and the tribe doesn’t take that responsibility lightly. Initially, it was able to keep paying employees, according to Peters, but eventually it had to furlough staff. Now that the casino is opening again, it’s able to bring a majority of employees back in.
He declined to say how much of the tribe’s revenue comes from the casino, but said it accounts for a “large portion” of the money that funds necessities such as the tribe’s health, law enforcement, and emergency services.
“We are feeling the same that most of society is, this has been very much a crippling situation,” Peters said. “We have absolutely no revenue coming in. But, our decision to open up is based first and foremost on the safety and health of our patrons and employees.”
Voluntary casino closures have hurt tribal economies across the state and nation. With the Kalispel Tribe’s Northern Quest Casino near Spokane closed for two months, it cost the tribe millions of dollars, according to an Associated Press report. And the Puyallup Tribe has told members it has just enough money to fund benefits and services through the end of next month.
Still, reopening casinos at this point in the pandemic isn’t something state leadership advises. As of Friday, nine Washington counties had been approved to move to Phase 2 out of four phases in Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, but most of the state is scheduled to remain in Phase 1 until at least June 1.
If casinos were not on tribal lands, they would likely be included in Phase 3 of the plan, Tara Lee, a spokesperson with the governor’s office, wrote in an email to The Olympian. That phase includes some other indoor entertainment, such as gyms, movie theaters, and museums.
“The governor has spoken to tribal leaders and while he doesn’t agree that casinos should be open, as sovereign nations we do not have jurisdiction over what happens on tribal lands,” Lee wrote. “We remain concerned about the spread of the virus.”
Peters says he appreciates Gov. Inslee’s data-driven, phased approach, calling him a “responsible governor.” But, he said, both plans are responsible.
“He’s looking at it comprehensively,” Peters said. “We are looking at it comprehensively, as a sovereign nation, for our area.”