Casino shutdowns during coronavirus crisis deal blow to tribes' finances

Monday 11th May 2020

SPOKANE, Wash. -- When the Kalispel Tribe of Indians closed its casino as the coronavirus took hold in Washington state, it essentially shut down its economy.

That difficult choice has played out nationwide as some 500 American Indian casinos have voluntarily closed during the pandemic, often taking away tribes' main source of income in an effort to protect people's health in communities with limited medical resources.

The U.S. government authorized $8 billion for tribes in a coronavirus relief package in March, when most casinos closed, but it's been slow to distribute the money, deepening the woes on reservations.

"We can't fund any programs without the casino" -- no health care, education, law enforcement or fire protection, said Phil Haugen, chief operating officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority.

Its Northern Quest Casino near Spokane closed for nearly two months, costing the tribe millions of dollars. But with restrictions starting to loosen nationwide, the casino reopened Tuesday with limits on the number of customers, frequent cleaning, and fewer slot machines and chairs at table games to ensure social distancing.

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While other American Indian-owned casinos have reopened or plan to in coming weeks, most are still closed. That's also forced layoffs and furloughs among the more than 1 million people working for tribes, many of them in casinos.

Furloughed workers are getting by with unemployment benefits and health coverage that many casinos kept in place, said John DelMonte, president of UAW Local 2121, a union representing 1,200 card dealers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

While the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation says it's losing millions of dollars a week, protecting workers is paramount.

"Everybody is taking this pretty serious. That's a good thing," he said. "To open and close again would be terrible. Better safe than sorry."

It's not clear when Foxwoods or the Mohegan Sun casino, also in Connecticut, will be back in business. The state plans to start easing restrictions May 20.

More than 5,000 employees at the casino complex owned by the Mohegan Tribe -- nearly the entire workforce -- have been furloughed but kept their health benefits, casino president Jeff Hamilton said.

He did not have a firm number on financial losses, "but we're in an environment where there's no revenue."

"I don't know that you ever make up lost revenue, and I think the concern is that, 'How is business impacted for the foreseeable future?'" Hamilton said. "Because you put an 'Open' sign up doesn't mean that everything is back to normal."

In Oklahoma, many tribal governments that shut down casinos in mid-March kept paying employees. The Cherokee Nation said it's costing the tribe $30 million to $40 million a month to pay salaries and expenses while casinos and other businesses are shuttered.

In New Mexico, American Indian-owned casinos that provide $820 million in annual revenue to 14 tribes have been shut down.

"I know for a fact that brings into question the economic stability of those tribes that have gaming operations," said Democratic state Rep. Derrick Lente, a tribal member from the Sandia Pueblo, which has shuttered its casino on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

Gallery: Tribal casinos coping with virus

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While corporations or billionaires own casinos in places like Las Vegas, tribes are sovereign nations that operate them under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988.

Information for this article was contributed by Sean Murphy, Susan Haigh and Susan Montoya Bryan of The Associated Press.

A Section on 05/11/2020

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