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COVID Outbreaks Occurring at Tribal Casinos in California

Agua Caliente casino room.

BY BRIAN HEWS • December 14, 2020

Riverside County officials confirmed six separate outbreaks of three or more cases at tribal casinos in the last six months, yet the sovereign nation casinos indoor facilities remain open while non-tribal casinos and cardrooms in California were closed last week by the latest stay-at-home order.

The closures are devastating cities, families, and the cardrooms, throwing thousands out of a job while impacting city budgets already reeling from pandemic expenses.

In August of this year, Hawaiian Gardens declared a fiscal emergency, with a letter being sent to Governor Gavin Newsom regarding the Gardens Casino. The City receives more than 70 percent of its revenue from the Casino.

The cities of Inglewood, Commerce and Bell Gardens are in a similar situation, the casinos in their cities provide over 20 percent, 25 percent, and 50 percent of budget funds, respectively.

Cardrooms have implemented much stricter health and occupancy rules than the tribes, most moving gaming outdoors.

Protocols in place include: Plexiglass installed at six-feet high between each player; no food or drink is allowed at the table at any time; masks must be worn at all times; employee dealers must wear face shields and masks and have a plexiglass barrier between them and the players; sanitizing including each time a player leaves a seat; hand sanitizers and hand washing stations throughout the outdoor area; temperatures  taken before a player or employee can be admitted; and extensive screening including multiple questions conducted of each customer before entering the outdoor facility.

 

gardens casino

Gardens Casino outdoor operations, with plexiglass between each player and dealer.

 

Yet the state ordered them closed last week and can “do nothing” to the tribes because they are a “sovereign nation.”

Agua Caliente Rancho Mirage has continued to offer large, indoor conference areas for private events or meetings. The Desert Sun reported on a Republican Women’s club who took advantage of that event space, hosting a luncheon in November that turned into an election night party.

Photos from that party showed women sitting and standing closely together around several tables. Many were not wearing masks.

Undaunted, the tribe opened its third casino in Cathedral City a few days before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Some casinos have scheduled a lineup of outdoor concerts. Fantasy Springs, owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, holds live music shows outside over 4 times per week.

And since they are sovereign, the casinos are under no obligation to report COVID cases; but outbreaks have been documented at some facilities.

Six outbreaks have been recorded at casinos in the last five months, according to county officials; four separate casinos each had one outbreak, while a fifth casino has had two.

The county does not release the names of the individual casinos and the county’s regular outbreak reports do not include specific numbers for casinos.

“We report everything to the county,” said one non-tribal casino official, “there are no documented transmission cases within our industry, there is not data to show spread, despite that, they close us down. It’s not fair to our employees, our vendors, and the cities we are located in.”

Protocols such as spacing out customers and using a good HVAC system, or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, like the protocols used by non-tribal cardrooms in California, reduce the risk of spread but is not widely used by the tribal casinos.

Masks help but at table games but people are still in close contact.

One official stated, “open indoor casinos could increase the number of cases. If workers are not adequately protected, they could bring infections back home. Visitors are also increasing their risk of taking COVID-19 back to their communities. I think it has the potential for a really negative impact and increasing cases in this pandemic.”

The non-tribal casinos point to a recommendation from the CDC for mass gatherings and large community events. The CDC said in guidance released this month that casinos open at full capacity are at the highest risk.

Yet Newsom, who was caught eating inside with twelve mask-less people at the swanky $300 per plate French Laundry in Napa last month, refuses to go to bat for the non-tribal casinos.

 

 

His administration has held “government-to-government” conversations with tribal leaders throughout the pandemic

“With the new stay-at-home orders those conversations are now continuing over conference calls.”

 

INVESTIGATION: California AG Becerra Took Over $500,000 From Tribal Casinos, Now His Agency is Paying Them Back(Opens in a new browser tab)

 

 

 

 

 

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