Tribal governments across the region shut down their casinos in mid-March because of the novel coronavirus pandemic — shutting off a major source of money for tribal governments, and killing jobs.
Now as Washington Gov. Jay Inslee considers how to reopen the state’s economy, so too are tribal governments weighing when, and how much, to reopen their casinos, which generate more than $2 billion a year in revenues.
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. More than King County government, and more than Fred Meyer, 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.
When casinos reopen for business will be a government-by-government decision, as tribal councils consider the best courses in their communities. The decision is up to tribal governments, not the state, because tribes maintain sovereign decision making on their lands.
As at other businesses, tribes will implement a range of practices in their casino operations to slow the spread of the coronavirus, from reducing the number of gaming machines available for play to create social distance between customers, to putting up plexiglass shields between employees and patrons. Some might require staff to wear masks, and some might request it of patrons.
Tribes that operate hotels will have to decide whether it is worth the extra cleaning costs to reopen — and how many rooms to make available for guests.
The Stillaguamish Tribe intends to open its casino May 11, according to tribal chairman Shawn Yanity. For others, opening remains weeks away, or longer.
Across the region, reopening will be gradual, and it will probably be 18 to 24 months before business is back up and running as before, said W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Indian Gaming Association.
“We are definitely in survival mode,” said Allen of Washington tribes. “Some tribes would like to open up now, but we don’t want to be the source that causes anyone to get sick from the virus. It is a calculated risk, when to open up, but we can’t wait for zero, there won’t be any economy left.”
Help from the federal government either has not been forthcoming, or can only scratch the surface of what tribal governments need to replace the revenue they are losing. Small tribes that don’t have casinos, but rent machines to tribes that do, also are losing money crucial to their budgets.
Larger casino operations in the Puget Sound area are major economic engines for their people and those tribes and their employees are feeling the pain of shutdown.
The Puyallup tribe’s gaming operations employ about 2,400 people. So far, 12% of those employees have been laid off and 73% are on furlough because of the pandemic, according to Michael Thompson, communications director for the tribe.
Tribal government operations are already being pinched, with 600 employees on furlough, laid off, or working reduced hours.
About 70% of the tribe’s economic base comes from casino revenues, said David Bean, chairman of the Puyallup tribal council. Right now, the tribe only has enough money to continue its usual spending on tribal member benefits and services through June.
It is not only the tribe that relies on casino proceeds. The tribe is one of the larger employers in Pierce County, Bean said, “and our nonnative relatives are hurting too.”
The tribe has no date yet for reopening its casino operations. “We will do so when it is safe, we don’t want to put money over life. You cannot have a thriving economy unless you have a healthy community,” Bean said.
In many rural communities around the Northwest, tribes are the largest employers, and the casino is the major economic driver.
The Wildhorse Resort & Casino operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation in Pendleton, Oregon, is the largest employer in the local community. The tribe and its casino and affiliated operations employ nearly 2,000 people and the payroll for the casino alone is normally more than $28 million a year, said Chuck Sams, spokesman for the tribes. About 75% of the employees at the resort and casino are non-Indian.
Because of the pandemic, so far 818 employees at the resort and casino are laid off. The losses in casino revenues, which pay for 25% of the tribe’s government programs, are mounting by the day.
When the casino and resort can fully reopen is anyone’s guess, Sams said, and it could be as late as June, depending on results of virus testing and public health data. The tribe will continue to be cautious, and put the health of the community first, Sams said.
The genetic memory of the pandemics that ravaged the Columbia River tribes is still strong in tribal families, both from the Spanish Flu epidemic in 1918 and other disease outbreaks beginning in the 1780s.
“What we learned from that is it was the people who self-isolated that survived.”