Tribes begin shutting down casinos to slow spread of coronavirus

By Lynda V. Mapes

The Seattle Times

To protect their people and the public from the coronavirus outbreak, the Suquamish, Puyallup, and Tulalip tribes announced Monday afternoon they are shutting down their casino operations for two weeks. More casino closures around Western Washington are expected.

The decision comes after actions by Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine and others to shut down schools, further reduce the size of public gatherings, and even close restaurants and bars, other than for take-out service, as the state scrambles to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

For any tribe, the decision is financially painful. The tribes’ casinos fund crucial tribal government programs, as well as charitable donations to their surrounding communities. From education, health and public safety to cultural programs, courts, elder care, and more.

Tribes already have canceled large events at their casinos and implemented medical-grade cleaning at their casino properties, which at the most urban venues see thousands of customers daily and employ hundreds of people at every shift. Tribes around the state already had canceled large events at their casino properties, from concerts to poker tournaments.

It was only a matter of time before their government would take this step, also, said Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe, which operates the Suquamish Clearwater Casino Resort on the Kitsap Peninsula. “We have to do everything we can. And that means everything.

“I think you will be seeing more (closures) coming out,” he said.

The Suquamish tribal government made its decision to protect public health and take leadership, Forsman said. “As far as being a sovereign government and a big employer and a responsible conscience of the greater Puget Sound, in keeping with our values and traditions, we believe this is the best thing to do, to reduce the spread of the virus. Of course with our history and these types of epidemics, having such a terrible cost on our people, we thought it was the right thing to do.”

The tribe’s hotel will close at 11 a.m. Tuesday. The tribe is taking steps to assist its approximately 1,000 casino and resort employees, Forsman said.

“We are in this together,” said the Puyallup tribal council in a press release Monday afternoon. The tribe is shutting both of its Emerald Queen casino locations and assessing what to do after the two-week closure.

Employees at the properties will continue to be paid and receive benefits as usual. The tribe is the 7th largest employer in Pierce County, with 3,000 employees, government-wide.

“The health and safety of our community and its tribal members, employees, customers and neighbors is our first priority,” the council stated.

Teri Gobin, chairwoman of the Tulalip Tribes, announced the closure of all of its gaming operations through March 31. The Tulalip Tribes are also postponing their elections until further notice.

“Our focus is on the well-being and care of our families, friends and of course the most vulnerable, our elders and those at most risk,” Gobin said in a news release Monday.

The decision will cause economic pain not only for the tribes that operate casinos, but for the thousands of non-Indian employees that work at them. Smaller tribes that do not operate casinos themselves but rent machines to casino operators also could feel the pain.

Tribes had moved faster in some regards than other governments to protect their people, shutting down elections, schools, and courts. At Port Gamble S’Klallam on the Kitsap Peninsula, gatherings were limited to no more than 10 people more than a week ago. At the Makah Tribe, already one of the most isolated tribal communities in the country at the furthest Northwest tip of the Lower 48, the tribal council nonetheless went even further Monday, closing all tribal properties to outsiders, even its beaches.

The sovereignty of tribal governments predates the state of Washington, and as such, the emergency powers of the state are not in force within tribal territories. However, tribal councils after a series of meetings Monday and conference calls with one another decided to take the step of shutting down casinos as a last resort to contain the virus.

Casinos are particularly popular with elderly patrons who are urged to stay home to avoid getting sick or spreading the virus.

Only one tribal casino in the region, the Wildhorse Casino and Resort operated by the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, in Pendleton, Oregon, has reported a positive coronavirus case among its casino staff. The casino closed for two days of deep cleaning then reopened March 4.

Operational changes are expected to be implemented by Wednesday to further protect patrons and the public, said Chuck Sams, spokesman for the tribes.