Tribal Casinos Share Reopening Strategies for COVID-19
Seattle Entertainment Group (A Native Owned Entertainment Company) conducted an independent survey between June 1st, 2020, and July 14th, 2020 to assess how Native American Casinos are impacted by COVID-19. These stories and reopening strategies were shared by casino owners, tribal chairwoman/man, and other tribal leaders throughout Indian Country.
THE BIG PICTURE
Revenue is down, capacity is decreased, and some casinos are still closed. The COVID crisis has now also increased suicide rates, further diminished essential supplies, and pushed casino executives/tribal leaders to their limits. With no end in sight, all we can do is support each other and try to move forward the best we can together. An elder once told me, “our feet face forward for a reason”.
At the time of surveying, we found that 6% of native-owned casinos we interviewed were still closed. Additionally, 97% of casino owners surveyed said that the $8 billion in COVID relief funds is not enough to mitigate the economic impact caused by the crisis. Furthermore, 3% of casinos are confident they can resume normal operations by the end of the year.
According to Indian Health Services (IHS), over 489,000 Natives have been tested for COVID. As of August 3rd, 2020 – 32,525 tests administered to Native Americans were positive while 411,320 tests were negative.
Image Provided By Rodney Bordeaux Rosebud Sioux Tribe President & Content Contributor
INDIVIDUAL RESPONSES FROM NATIVE OWNED CASINOS
MESCALERO APACHE TRIBE
Audio Interview – With Gabe Aguilar
“I want to say it put fear in our heart, and our community. Our community suffered a loss of an elder, you know, right off the bat”. Exclaimed Gabe Aguilar – Mescalero Apache Tribe President. As a former Marine, Gabe is no stranger to life and death situations but even this was unfamiliarly discomforting to him and communities just like his. To protect the Mescalero reservation (which spans over 465,000 acres) Gabe and his tribe went into an immediate lockdown and implemented roadblocks, strict curfews, travel restrictions, and law enforcement issued tickets for noncompliance after seeing a sudden rise in cases within his community. As expressed in our audio interview, Gabe is responsible for the safety and guidance of over 5,000 Mescalero Apache Tribal Members. Protecting your constituents and leading the way for thousands of people is no easy job. Being a leader requires dedication and sacrifice. So, after Gabe’s daughter tested positive for COVID, he also had to isolate for two weeks. According to Gabe, it was a true mental challenge to endure so much time with so little outside contact. Because of Gabe’s extensive work, (even during lockdown) the Mescalero have maintained a 99% negative infection rate within their community. The Mescalero Tribe owns and operates the Inn Of The Mountain Gods, Casino Apache, and Ski Apache in New Mexico. According to Gabe, the Mescalero had to lay off over 1,200 employees from their casino and another 400 from the tribe. The financial impact for his tribe goes beyond lost revenue, however. Gabe and his tribe were in the final stages of major refinance right before COVID. This like many other transactions in Indian Country was a big deal that took years to pin down.
Listen to the full interview above for more information about how Gabe and the Mescalero Apache Tribe are working together to contain COVID.
“In the Apache way of life, there is a belief that a dark side of life is present, as well as a light side. In the dark side of life, there is misery, and nothing progresses for the Apache. Here in the light of life, there is happiness; a world God created of peace and harmony. In this world of peace and harmony, everything progresses for our people.”
INN OF THE MOUNTAIN GODS
Survey Respondent – CEO Frizzle Jr.
Inn Of The Mountain Gods Image Provided By Frizzle Jr.
“Much like the rest of the nation, native businesses have had to adapt to the new realities the pandemic has brought forth. The Inn Of The Mountain Gods has put strict policies in place including requiring masks, taking temperatures at the door, and installing plexiglass in closed areas, among many additional precautions,” said Inn Of The Mountain Gods CEO Frizzle Jr. The property has also limited the number of people allowed in the elevator, turned off every other slot machine, and closed bingo until further notice. The revenue from the Inn Of The Mountain Gods helps provide critical services that serve the entire community, so it was paramount for them to reopen when they felt it was safe to do so. According to Mr. Frizzle, the time during closure was not wasted. Proactively Frizzle worked with local officials to put together a plan for team members to come back to work safely. “Above everything else, having a thorough communication plan has been our key to success”, stated Frizzle. Currently, The Inn Of The Mountain Gods is operating at about 50% of its normal capacity. In Frizzle’s opinion, while reopening, each native business has to take their unique situations into account when making the decision. “It is imperative that each business has a strong reopening plan in place, as well as an effective communication plan that ensures all team members are prepared,” says Frizzle Jr.
The Inn Of The Mountain Gods is a AAA Four Diamond tribal casino property nestled next to the village of Ruidoso in New Mexico. Mr. Frizzle Jr manages almost 40,000 square feet of gaming, 273 luxury rooms/suites, a plethora of dining venues, a nationally acclaimed championship golf course, and more.
WHITE MOUNTAIN APACHE TRIBE
Reflection Interview – With Gwenda Lee-Gatewood
White Mountain Tribe Image courtesy of Gwenda Lee-Gatewood
“Our 80 years old and older population used to be around 200 and now with the recent deaths of some key wisdom keepers, that number has lowered. Our traditional medicine man was even taken from us due to Covid19, it was like a piece of our culture left with him” emphasized Gwenda Lee-Gatewood – history’s first chairwoman for the White Mountain Apache Tribe (WMAT). Gwenda and her community are unable to have gatherings, ceremonies, and burials like before, so according to her, times are more challenging than ever. “Our way of life has been challenged to its core,” said Lee-Gatewood. The White Mountain Apache has a rich cultural history forged in the sacred and expansive recreational White Mountains of Arizona. Gwenda is responsible for overseeing the safety of over 17,000 WMAT members. “We have “8,000 who are 18 and under, imagine losing elders and what kind of effects that could have on a community” insisted Mrs. Lee-Gatewood. Those same minors will suffer from the absence of traditional education and will also fall victim to complications that stem from learning at home without the internet. Also, there’s a definite potential for an increase in mental health issues such as elevated anxiety and post-traumatic stress according to Gwenda. There is a general lack of medical supplies, testing capabilities, and access to first responders when needed in the opinion of Mrs. Lee-Gatewood. The WMAT plans to use the relief aid money offered by the government to increase access the aforesaid resources. “Covid19 has tested our strength, our faith, our core, but we are a people of great faith, of hope and we have endured so much and as we proceed to ask our Creator for protection, forgiveness, healing and to overcome this challenge” reported Gwenda. “Our ancestors had the miraculous determination and valor as they conquered the desert, created their homes, and contributed everything they had to give to establish their way of life.” expressed Lee-Gatewood. Gwenda Lee-Gatewood exercises her determination to help her tribe and community carry on safely.
“There are many different nations of Apache people. We are Western Apaches, closely related to the people of San Carlos, Payson, and Camp Verde. Though there are differences in language, history, and culture, we are also related to the other Apache nations: the Chiricahua, Mescalero, Jicarrilla, Lipan, and Kiowa-Apache peoples.”
HON-DAH RESORT CASINO
Survey Respondent – GM Brent Kurth
“In the long term, for those businesses that remain closed, there is an uncertainty of income once the PPP (Federal Funding) ends; therefore leading to financial hardship and socio-economic downward spiral,” said Brent Kurth General Manager of the Hon-dah Resort Casino. The Hon-Day Resort Casino is owned and operated by the WMAT and is managed by GM Brent. Kurth is a long time tribal gaming veteran that has worked with the White Mountain Apache Tribe for over 25 years now. “Every tribal community should coordinate very closely with their Healthcare Professional (i.e. Tribal Division of Health and Emergency Operations)” stated Brent. Mr. Kurth suggests that each respective tribal department should develop and implement a health & safety sanitation program. Ideally, Brent recommends having the program approved by a designated healthcare organization and should include extensive training before implementation. The casino Brent manages has hundreds of employees, 126 hotel rooms, 800+ slot machines, 7 table games, and over 258 RV spaces. Opening prematurely could have serious repercussions without taking the right precautions. While other properties continue to gamble with fate, Brent and the WMAT are taking a slightly different approach to protect their community. “The decision to reopen a native business rests with considering factors such as whether the case numbers are increasing or decreasing in a particular region or tribe. If the numbers are increasing and have not leveled or decreased, then strong consideration to reopening must be taken into account” Mr. Kruth insisted.
As of now, the White Mountain Apache Tribe Reservation, Casino, Hotel, and Conference Center are still closed. When we asked Brent to provide a quote regarding his outlook, he said, “In life, there are continuous challenges, but we must rise to the occasion, standing as one, and remain vigilant against COVID-19, in order to be triumphant”.
Wind Creek Hospitality
Survey Respondent – President & CEO Jay Dorris
“Our research and consultations with health professionals indicate that casinos can reopen and provide an environment for staff and guests that are as safe as possible”, said Jay Dorris president and CEO of Wind Creek Hospitality. The Poarch Band Creek of Indians has multiple casinos/entities that are managed by Jay and the world-class Wind Creek Hospitality management company. On May 27th, 2020 Wind Creek announced that they were reopening all three of their Alabama based resorts over the following two weeks. Wind Creek started with a soft opening to small groups of guests which began on June 4th and was followed by a formal reduced capacity public opening on June 8th. Upon reopening to the public, Jay and his team implemented a reservation system to help accommodate social distancing regulations and control headcount on the gaming floor.. Wind Creek also thoughtfully crafted a plan to segment the gaming day into four sessions. Following each gaming session, the floor would be thoroughly deep cleaned and sanitized. Their deep cleaning efforts were in addition to the cleaning that was being done to each machine before and after guests. These are only some of the standards Jay created to keep his guests and team members safe. To further protect his staff, Mr. Dorris also required face masks, redesignated new smoking areas, and reduced operational capacities to roughly ⅓ of the normal headcount. After an astute review of the Wind Creek Standard, it was clear that Jay Dorris wanted to take care of his team. “Our company was able to keep our employees on payroll during the period of time that the properties were closed. Long term, negative macroeconomic impacts could affect all of us and we will have to see how we can adjust and react as needed at that time” confessed Jay. One thing is for sure, Jay is continuing to look toward the future and the horizon. “You must take care of the staff and take care of the customers. What we think we know and do today will probably be different soon”, answered Jay when asked to provide a quote regarding his current outlook on the COVID Crisis.
POARCH BAND CREEK OF INDIANS
Reflection Interview – With Stephanie Bryan
“While we don’t know how long COVID-19 will linger, a primary concern we have is the impact that it will potentially have on our Tribal population and particularly our elders”, said Stephanie Bryan, the first female political leader elected as Tribal Chair for the Poarch Creek Band of Indians. Stephanie is well known in Indian Country for her work and contributions while on legislative committees such as NIGC, NIGA, and USET to name a few. “A potential long term problem is the crippling effect that this could have on our economy and Tribal government” confessed Stephanie. “Our businesses and government have been in a limited operational capacity since mid-March, and the impacts this change will have on our people are yet to be known” stated Byran. Like many other tribal entities and governments, The Poarch Band Creek of Indians rely on their businesses’ revenue to assist in providing quality housing, health care, education, and many other essential resources for their community. “At this time, we have no way to know how the pandemic might affect these essential services, but we are being continuously prudent in our planning and decision-making” stated Stephanie. While the Poarch Band Creek Of Indians is very thankful that Congress provided funds to Tribal communities, there is shared concern among many Tribal leaders that this is not enough to offset the impacts of the pandemic according to Stephanie. As chairwoman, Stephanie Byran directly leads over 1,500 of the total 2,000 + native constituents who live within the vicinity of Atmore, Alabama. “To move forward we must be empowered and able to stabilize our governments now and in the future in the manner that best suits our individual Tribal nation” concluded Stephanie.
“The Poarch Creek Indians are descendants of a segment of the original Creek Nation, which once covered almost all of Alabama and Georgia. Unlike many eastern Indian tribes, the Poarch Creeks were not removed from their tribal lands and have lived together for almost 200 years in and around the reservation in Poarch, Alabama.”
COEUR D’ALENE CASINO
Survey Respondent – CEO Laura Stensgar
Image of Coeur d’Alene Casino provided by Laura Stensgar
“The burden of losing a job is enormous and we were fortunate to be able to continue to pay our employees during our closure,” said Laura Stensgar CEO of the Coeur d’Alene Casino. Laura has been with the casino for nearly 30 years. As of 2019, Stensgar now oversees roughly 1,000 employees and a massive casino resort which includes over 300 hotel rooms, a 15,000 square-foot spa, an award-winning golf course, and more. “I am proud of our approach so far and how our team has rallied to do the best we can”, stated Stensgar. As a 26+ year veteran of Coeur d’Alene Casino, naturally safely guiding and protecting her team was a priority. Coeur d’Alene Casino guests and employees have been incredibly supportive during their closure and reopening according to Laura. “We reopened with strict policies in place including requiring masks and doing temperature checks at the door. “We have had really good feedback from guests and our employees have been extremely diligent and gracious with all the new cleaning requirements” Laura Explained. Coeur d’Alene Casino has all the new “normal” percussions such as facemasks, plexiglass, and temperature checks, but Stensgar and her team have also implemented many other safeguards to protect everyone on the property. To ensure all machines and surface areas could be cleaned properly, Coeur d’Alene Casino closes at 3 am for a 4 hour deep clean. Additionally, Laura’s team has reduced the number of entrances to control high traffic areas, added marking on the floor for cueing, increased the cleaning intervals in the restrooms as well as at the gas pump, and limited venue capacities. When asked what tips she had for other tribal casinos Laura said, “I would say don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution and do what you need to do to operate in the safest way possible even if it means some extra work or canceling or closing certain events or amenities”.
“The Coeur d’Alene Tribe has a grand legacy of taking care of its own and helping its neighbors. That, too, has been central through six expansions, creating 300 luxury hotel rooms and over 100,000 square feet of gaming space. Our Circling Raven Golf Club is renowned as one of the finest new golf challenges in the region, the nation,, and the world.”
FEDERATED INDIANS OF GRATON RANCHERIA
Survey Respondent – Chairman Greg Sarris
Image Of The Exterior Of Graton Casino
“If we do not as a country get this pandemic under control, and if our casino resorts will have to close again, my Tribe would be in incredible trouble” declared Greg Sarris chairman of Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria. Under Greg’s tenor, Graton Rancheria has substantially expanded its casino resort property, increased its involvement with local politics, and resolved multi-million casino development disputes. At this point, Greg was ready for just about anything, including a pandemic. After nonessential businesses were told to close, unemployment benefits became available and stimulus checks were deployed, Sarris and Graton Casino management made the difficult decision to furlough most of the 2,000 employees on staff. In the interim, Graton Casino and Resort and Sarris worked diligently to create a four-step plan to reopen the casino for his tribe. During closure 150 essential casino and hotel staff were retained along with another 350 or so salary employees. These essential employees were needed for maintenance and general operations. The decision to reopen was carefully thought through according to Sarris. Graton Casino opened almost two weeks later than many other casinos. Greg wanted to take the time needed to create a safe and sustainable environment instead of just following Nevada’s lead. “We have had to scrape by and are hoping that our limited reopening will get us back on our feet,” stated Greg after reopening. Mr. Sarris and Graton Casino have implemented a myriad of new safety precautions upon reopening. Some of the new safety measures include spacing slot machines 6’ apart, electrostatic spraying, limiting table game players to 4 people per table, and thermal cameras for temperature scanning upon entry. Graton Casino has also retained 99% of its staff after reopening and continued medical coverage for the duration of their casino’s closure. In addition to all of the other precautions, the decision was made to close their doors temporarily to regulate capacity during the first weekend of reopening.
When we asked Greg how he thought the $8 billion COVID relief funds would help tribal communities, he said “There are countless ways the COVID-19 relief fund package can help Indian tribes, of course, depends on the particular tribe’s needs and circumstances. Some may need to spend more on medical issues, while others may need to cover losses due to a lack of financial funds from other sources. Certainly, that money should be a help to those tribes with the greatest health needs and those tribes likewise who have been impacted because of the crisis”.
“The Graton Rancheria community is a federation of Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo groups recognized as a tribe by the U.S. Congress. The Miwok of west Marin County have, through the years, been referred to as Marshall Indians, Marin Miwok, Tomales, Tomales Bay, and Hookooeko. The Bodega Miwok (aka, Olamentko) traditionally lived in the area of Bodega Bay.”
Survey Respondent – John Berrey
I’m very fearful for the near term and I pray we recover strongly for the long term” announced John Berrey Chairman of the Quapaw Nation. Mr. Berrey was sworn in as tribal chair in 2001. Since then, he has built a foundation for long term financial success and has various additional accomplishments. The Quapaw Nation has diversified businesses that include entities like the John Berrey Fitness Center, a gas station convenience/store, an award-winning golf course, Downstream Casino, and many more. Of these entities, Downstream Casino was likely impacted the most by COVID. John and his casino leadership team made difficult decisions to furlough almost 1,100 employees meanwhile covering their pay and medical benefits for an extended time. Many of the casino employees gave thanks to John and the executive staff at Downstream Casino for the way they continue navigated the unknown circumstances.
“Downstream Casino Resort is owned and operated by the Quapaw Nation of Oklahoma. The Quapaw Leadership’s decision to build a truly upscale state of the art Casino Resort in 2008 has proven to be the gem of the four states to this date. “Everything was done with the purpose of making a visit to Downstream a superb experience.” Said Tribal Chairman, John Berrey. The look and feel of the casino is influenced by the rich history of the Quapaw culture.”
- How do you feel COVID – 19 has affected your community and other Native Americans?
“Horribly, illness, jobs, fear, and isolation”.
- What challenges are you seeing within your reservations as a result of COVID – 19?
“Financial, health, social, and mental anxiety. Hunger.”
- Are there any long term problems within your community that cannot be solved as a result of COVID – 19?
“Deaths, long term illness as a result of COVID infection”.
- How do you think the $8 Billion COVID – 19 relief funds will help tribal communities?
“It will help ease the burden but it’s not enough”.
- Please provide one quote regarding the current outlook, lasting impacts, or foreseeable challenges surrounding COVID – 19?
“I’m very fearful for the near term and I pray we recover strongly for the long term”.
Rosebud Sioux Tribe
Content Contributor – President Rodney Bordeaux
President Bordeaux and the Rosebud Casino closed their doors on March 18th, 2020, and reopened them on July 3rd. The Tribe made the decision to suspend casino, dining, and hotel operations in full support of the safety measures recommended by the CDC. The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has over 34,000 enrolled members, 29,028 of those members live on the reservation. According to Rodney’s update #19, the Rosebud Sioux Tribe had a total of 66 cases as of July 24th with 45 total recoveries. On May 13, 2020, Rodney announced a full lockdown and enforced several road closures in areas of highway that lead into the reservation. Mr. Bordeaux also added additional checkpoints throughout the reservation.
To read more about everything Mr. Bordeaux and the Rosebud Tribe are doing to protect their community, click here.
*There were a variety of incomplete survey contributions, pictures, and testimonies that were not added to this list.
The leaders of our tribe’s, casinos and native communities inspire and motivate us to continue. Without their leadership and direction, millions of Native Americans would be lost. Good leadership reinforces culture, ideas, beliefs, and growth within us all.
Some of these casinos may have closed since the interview took place.