County backs off plan to block casino openings, recognizes sovereign right

Friday 15th May 2020

County officials on Thursday backed off of their opposition to tribal nations' plans to reopen casinos that have been closed for two months and now say they will work with them to safely resume operations during the coronavirus outbreak.

Public Health Officer Wilma Wooten had said 24 hours earlier that she strongly opposed the tribes' plans to reopen casinos while a county order prohibiting public gatherings was still in place, and she said she was working with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to block their reopening.

At Thursday's daily county update on the outbreak, she said she had met with tribal leaders and agreed that they had the right to reopen.

"It is very clear to us that tribal nations have sovereign authority," she said. "It's very clear that the county and the tribes share a mutual interest in protecting the health of the community."

Wooten said the tribes planned to open casinos in phases and with safety and sanitation plans that she would review with them and offer guidance and advice where possible.

She and other county officials earlier had said they were concerned about the casinos reopening because the coronavirus still is active in the county, and safety measures such as prohibiting public gatherings had helped keep its spread down.

On Thursday, the county announced six more COVID-19 deaths among area residents, bringing the local death toll to an even 200.

Casinos may not be the only facilities reopening soon, Supervisor Greg Cox said at the press briefing.

"We've tried to reopen while trying to strike the right balance between saving lives and jump-starting our economy and society," he said. "Our success in slowing the spread of the virus and limiting impacts to our hospitals has allowed us to take another big step."

Cox said he and other supervisors had met in closed session the previous day and directed the county chief administrative officer to work with state officials on an accelerated reopening plan for San Diego.

While he didn't provide details of just what might reopen, Cox said the state does allow a process for some counties to move faster than the governor's plan, and San Diego County would work aggressively on achieving more local control. He said additional details would be discussed at next Tuesday's Board of Supervisors meeting.

Cox also announced that on May 26, library clients will be able to reserve items online and schedule pickups in county libraries in Alpine, Borrego Springs, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, Ramona and Vista.

The same service will be available June 1 at libraries in Bonita, El Cajon, Julian, Poway, San Marcos and Solana Beach county libraries will begin the same service, Cox said.

Among casinos, Viejas Casino Resort in Alpine plans to reopen 8 a.m. Monday, Sycuan Casino Resort in El Cajon at noon Wednesday and Valley View Casino in Valley Center at 8 a.m. May 22.

While San Diego County officials are not planning to block the opening, Michigan state officials appear to have found a way of discouraging one casino from resuming operation.

The Island Resort and Casino had planned to reopen May 6, which the state would allow because its operators are a federally recognized sovereign nation.

But while the state couldn't enforce the governor's stay-home order on the reservation, the casino received a notice that off-reservation staff members and clients could be cited with a $1,000 fine for violating the order, leading the casino to remain closed, according to news reports.

Wooten did not say how many tribal nation representatives participated in Thursday's conference call with her, but a county communications officer said all 18 area tribes were invited.

Adam Day, chief administrative officer with the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, said a Sycuan tribal leader was among the participants.

"We're happy to sit down with Dr. Wooten, walk her through what the plan actually does," he said. "We presented information to her and look forward to sharing with her face-to-face in a positive way."

The casino's health and sanitation program can be found online at Day said the casino has cancelled all live performances, closed its pool and suspended its complementary shuttle service, bingo, buffets and valet service.

A press release from the casino said a surface-bonding long-term disinfectant called TruClean has been applied throughout the property, including on gaming machines, elevators, buttons, chairs, counter tops, gas pumps, floors and other areas.

Every other slot machine will be turned off and table games will be limited to three players to provide social distancing among visitors, according to the press release.

Charles Gerba, a professor of virology at the University of Arizona, said social distancing, facial coverings and constant sanitation of surfaces can go a long way toward preventing large-scale outbreaks from starting in the region's casinos.

"As long as people follow those rules, and there is some level of enforcement from the casinos, I think it does minimize the risk to a level that would stop large scale outbreaks," said Gerba, a respected expert in pathogen detection and transfer of viruses through surface contact.

"But that doesn't mean the risk is reduced to zero," he added. "Because it is so new, there is just a lot we don't know about this virus yet."

Having researched norovirus outbreaks in casinos, including some on cruise ships, Gerba said it's important to think about all shared surfaces.

Viruses have been known to move from person to person not just by hitting buttons or pulling levers on slot machines but also on poker chips and slick playing cards.

Once, he said, a norovirus outbreak even started when an infected person vomited on a spinning roulette wheel, spraying those nearby.

At the Thursday press briefing, Wooten was asked if she still opposed the reopening of casinos, which she strongly spoke against the previous day.

"Yesterday, I had not spoken with the tribal nations," she said. "In our meeting this morning, they have stated that they are implementing a phased-in approach. So I am going to work with them to do just that. While we recognize that casinos are in stage three of the governor's plan, tribal nations are sovereign entities. So, that's my position today."

The state recently entered in the second phase of the governor's reopening plan, and no date is projected for stage three.

Supervisor Nathan Fletcher also was asked if he thought it was a good idea for tribes to reopen casinos, but said only that he respected the tribes' right as a sovereign nation and it was not his place to tell them what to do.

"This is a decision that is for them to make," he said. "There is a long and very dark history in this country of white people in particular telling our Native Americans what they should and shouldn't do. I am not going to be part of continuing that into the future. I respect their sovereignty. I respect this is their decision to make."

Attorney Michael Anderson, who specializes in tribal land recovery and has worked with a half-dozen San Diego County tribes, said federal law allows tribes themselves to control their gaming operations.

"The counties have no jurisdiction over tribal governments or tribal lands in the gaming arena," said Anderson, who has served in several roles for Indian Affairs. "The jurisdiction for gaming operations -- and for opening or closing -- is with the tribal government and the tribal gaming agency."

Anderson added that when it comes to tribal relations, there are three sovereign entities at the state, federal and tribal levels that supersede county governments.

"The abilities, rights and laws of the sovereign tribal governments are sometimes overlooked by the general public," Anderson said.

"They are as important and sometimes contain superior powers based on their inherent sovereignty of their land and territory over state governments, and even sometimes the federal government."

Kate Spilde, a tribal gaming professor at San Diego State University, has spoken to several tribes in San Diego County as they make plans to resume operations.

She said tribes are getting creative on how they can repurpose their gaming properties and outdoor spaces to safely accommodate casino guests.

"Many of our tribes are looking at creating smaller footprint experiences for guests," she said. "If a couple were to come to a casino, or a family that lives together is coming, the property can prepare for that and create smaller spaces for those groups to stay together and socially distance from others."

Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, $8 billion is slated for tribes across the country. So far, 60 percent of the funding has been sent to tribes based on population size, but the rest is being withheld to later be distributed based on the number of people employed by each tribe.

The delays may have increased feelings of urgency when it comes to reopening the casinos.

"(It has) definitely left many tribes feeling that they're on their own," Spilde said. "That was really the original impetus for tribes developing the tribal gaming industry in the 1970s and 80s ...

"Cuts to tribal programs in the 70s and 80s pushed tribes to create gaming to take care of themselves."

Also at the Thursday update, Fletcher reported that 3,998 coronavirus tests had been conducted in a single day, a new high for the county as it continues to make progress toward a 5,200 daily goal. In all, 92,095 coronavirus tests have been conducted countywide.

Of those, the county has had 5,391 positive results, including 113 new cases since Wednesday.

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