Morongo casino, others reopen despite Newsom's request to stay closed

Friday 22nd May 2020

Six casinos in or near the Coachella Valley are opening their doors Friday to guests who are ready to gamble on slot machines and card games, despite a request from Gov. Gavin Newsom to stay closed.

Newsom sent a letter to California tribes on May 15 urging them not to reopen their gaming facilities. But tribes are sovereign nations and don't have to follow local or state stay-at-home orders.

Casinos are considered higher-risk workplaces because of the volume of people they bring in and fall under Stage 3 of the governor's reopening plan. Other businesses in Stage 3 have not been allowed to reopen yet.

After a closure that's lasted more than two months, Spotlight 29 Casino near Coachella and the Tortoise Rock Casino near Twentynine Palms will be the first to open in the valley Friday at 10 a.m., followed by the Agua Caliente casinos in Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs at noon. The Morongo Casino & Resort near Banning and the nearby original Casino Morongo are scheduled to open at 2 p.m.

All will have new precautionary measures in place to help curb the spread of COVID-19, from temperature checks and mask requirements to changes in layout to accommodate social distancing and more.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians was the last in the group to share a reopening date this week. In its announcement, the tribe cited the Riverside County Board of Supervisors' vote the day before supporting tribal governments' reopening of their casinos with social distancing measures in place and personal protective equipment provided for staff.

At the Agua Caliente Casino Palm Springs and Agua Caliente Casino Rancho Mirage, visitors can expect the following new precautions because of COVID-19:

Guests at the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians' Spotlight 29 and Tortoise Rock casinos can anticipate these changes:

At the Morongo Casino & Resort, owned by the Morongo Band of Mission Indians, visitors will get their first glimpse at the newly completed 65,000-square-foot expansion and renovation project. Among other additions are new restaurants and a 30% expansion of the gaming floor. Most of the project was done before the casino had to close, but the project officially wrapped during the closure.

Here are changes guests returning to the new casino and original Casino Morongo can anticipate:

Of casinos in the Coachella Valley, both the Fantasy Springs Casino and Augustine Casino have yet to make reopening dates public.

Jef Bauer, general manager of Augustine Casino near Coachella, said this week that the casino will not reopen before June 1.

Fantasy Springs has been announcing new and rescheduled concert dates. The soonest upcoming event on the calendar that hasn't been canceled or postponed is a Chicago concert, set for Sept. 12. For a full list of upcoming shows, go to fantasyspringsresort.com.

One of California's largest tribal casinos reopened Monday to a large crowd as customers had their temperatures taken at the door and were ordered to wear facial coverings.

The Viejas Casino & Resort was the first of several popular casinos in the San Diego area to open this week. Last week, Win-River Resort & Casino in Redding was the first tribal casino to reopen in California after the coronavirus outbreak.

San Diego's top public health official was critical last week but acknowledged tribes were within their rights.

Every other slot machine was turned off but the strong turnout meant many customers were still playing less than six feet (1.8 meters) apart. Card dealers worked with up to three players at a table and there were no barriers separating them -- also far less than six feet apart.

Customers were required to have their foreheads scanned for temperatures. Electronic signs across the casino floor told them -- "Let's Play Again!" -- while also instructing them to stay six feet apart, wash hands for 20 seconds, avoid touching eyes, noses and mouths and come back another day if they were feeling sick.

Within an hour of opening at 8 a.m., the first three floors of four-story parking garage were full at the casino, which has 2,500 slot machines in Alpine, east of San Diego. By late morning, there were about 150 waiting in line at the front entrance and cars were lined up on the rural road that leads to the parking lots.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. But for some -- especially older adults and people with existing health problems -- it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.

Ronda McLauchlan, 49, of Alpine lined up at 7:30 a.m. before going to work as a painting contractor because "it's all about freedom." She is highly critical of Gov. Gavin Newsom's orders to keep businesses closed.

"They're opening up because they don't have to listen to him," she said.

Dedra Bloxton, 51, took the day off from working at a port in Long Beach to drive two hours from Los Angeles with a friend and play the slot machines. "There's nothing to do at home," she said. "It feels good just to take a drive. It feels good just to be outside."

Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County's top public health officer, last week backed off from her earlier criticism of reopening plans.

Wooten, who met with tribal leaders to discuss their plans, noted that casinos were in the third stage of California's reopening plans and the state is only in the second stage, but she refused to say if the casinos were making a mistake.

"Tribal nations are sovereign entities," she told reporters.

The San Diego Union-Tribune -- in an editorial titled, "San Diego casinos are about to gamble with patrons' lives" -- said opening is a "high-risk public health experiment"

San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher refused to question the tribes last week.

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

Lucy Gavin, who works with the developmentally disabled and is collecting unemployment benefits because her client doesn't want her too close, came to play slots.

"Everything is getting ready to open," she said. "I think it's a bit too soon ... We were getting tired of sitting around."

The Sycuan Casino Resort in El Cajon opened Wednesday and the Valley View Casino & Hotel in Valley Center resumes operations Friday. The Jamul Casino reopened Monday for club members and will open its doors to the general public on Thursday. All three are in San Diego County.

This story will be updated throughout the day as casinos open. Check back for updates.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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