More tribal casinos are opening around the region, with precautions in place because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Puyallup, Suquamish, Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes all are reopening their facilities Monday, and the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation will open its Twelve Tribes facility in Omak, Okanogan County, on Tuesday. But patrons will not find it’s back to business as usual.
Precautions vary by facility, but include reduced capacity in order to ensure more space between customers, temperature checks before entry, limited hours to allow time for deep cleaning, and mandatory masks and gloves for all customers. Hotels and many restaurants will remain closed. Plastic shielding and social-distancing tape will help prevent customers from being in close contact. And if big crowds turn out, customers will have to wait their turn in a virtual line tracked by cellphone.
The Angel of the Winds casino operated by the Stillaguamish Tribe in Arlington was the first to open on the west side of the Cascades and drew thousands of people in a line of cars that stretched four miles from the property along the highway.
“It was daunting,” said general manager Travis O’Neil. “We did not know what to expect, and if the neighbors are reading this, I apologize.” The tribe eventually called out its police and county officers also worked the traffic that frustrated locals just trying to get home.
People waited in line for entry for three hours and longer. Operating at only half capacity, the facility has been constantly full since it opened, despite operating 24 hours a day, O’Neil said. Part of the delay in entering was a safety briefing and temperature check for every patron, O’Neil said. “We are taking this very seriously.”
Tribes across the state closed their casinos two months ago because of the coronavirus outbreak. The shutdowns have hammered tribal governments, which rely heavily on casino revenues to pay for government operations from police to education to social services. Tribes had to furlough thousands of employees at their casino properties and in tribal government offices.
The closures were unprecedented.
“It wasn’t an easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do,” Bill Sterud, vice chair of the Puyallup tribal council, said Thursday, announcing the upcoming reopening of the Puyallup’s casino. “Our casinos help fund our government. They are our economic engine.” The casino has boosted the tribe to a full-service government, including per capita payments of $2,000 monthly. Those may have to be reduced, the council has cautioned because of the pandemic and shutdown.
At Puyallup, the EQC Fife will open at 10 a.m. Monday, the tribal council announced Thursday. The tribe will also open a new EQC I-5 Tacoma in June.
Managers will only allow 30% of the usual capacity of the EQC property to use the facility at one time — at a property that at 100% capacity can accommodate 12,000 guests. The hotel will not be open and only one restaurant will be operating.
Anyone with a temperature at 100 degrees or above will be invited to come back another day.
Washington tribal casinos around the state generate more than $2 billion a year in revenue and the economic pain of the casino shutdown matters beyond reservation borders.
Tribes employ more people in Washington than Starbucks or Costco Wholesale, more than Safeway and Albertsons, more than Walmart, according to a study for the Washington Indian Gaming Association by economist Jonathan Taylor.
Tribes directly employ at least 30,715 people, making tribal governments the eighth-largest employer in the state, according to the study. The tribal payroll in employee compensation was more than $1.5 billion in 2017. A lot of that money was spent on workers in casinos, and most of those employees are non-Indians.
In Washington, 22 tribes operate 29 casinos on reservation lands, from the Pacific Coast to Spokane and from the Cowlitz tribe near the border with Oregon to the Nooksacks’ casino near Canada.
Tribes under a compact with the state also donate a share of their revenue to local communities.
The Stillaguamish Tribe is scheduled to donate $180,000 for a new ambulance to the Oso Fire Department — a donation in excess of 1,000% of the department’s annual budget.
Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order remains in effect until May 31, to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus. However, the state had no authority over the casinos because they are on tribal lands.