Sonoma County warns about New Year's Eve party for 4,000 at tribal casino: 'We do not have jurisdiction'

Thursday 24th December 2020

Sonoma County officials said Graton Resort and Casino plans to host an indoor New Year's Eve party with 4,000 guests on Dec. 31, as the county and the state grapple with soaring COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths.

Graton, located on tribal land in Rohnert Park, does not fall under California's regional stay-at-home order as tribal governments and the casinos they operate are exempt from state regulation as sovereign regions.

"It would be our preference, obviously, to not have a party with 4,000 people indoors," said Paul Gullixson, Sonoma County's public information officer. "But we do not have jurisdiction there."

He added that county officials are in contact with Graton and helping provide some guidance for the planned party, which is billed as a private event on the casino's website.

"They are planning to do things with as much mitigation measures as they can," said Sonoma County Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase."They made a number of changes to try to ensure that there is safety."

Gov. Gavin Newsom's shutdown order of indoor entertainment venues covering nearly all of California does not include the state's 62 tribal casinos. The Bay Area's three tribal casinos -- Graton Resort and Casino, Lytton Casino San Pablo and River Rock Casino in Geyserville -- are all open.

"The casino has been open all along," said Mase, adding that some of the mitigation measures Graton discussed include "limiting their indoor capacity to 20% of what's normal, in terms of enforcing facial coverings or masks, as well as social distancing."

Tribal casinos do not have to follow state health regulations, but they all require masks, have removed seats at tables and turned off some slot machines. They also require temperature checks for entry.

In response to a question about the New Year's Eve event, Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said in a statement to the Chronicle that "the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria continue to work closely with the Sonoma County Public Health Officer."

He added, "Graton Resort & Casino will remain open on a limited basis and continues to exceed all CDC safety requirements. In addition to those safety measures already in place, team members are tested for COVID-19 every two weeks and wear digital devices that ensure social distancing. Bars will continue to remain closed, and walk up alcohol service will end nightly at 9:00 p.m."

He did not address the New Year's Eve party specifically.

California's casinos voluntarily shut down in March following Newsom's stay-at-home order. They started reopening in mid-May despite the governor asking them to delay throwing open their doors.

California's cardrooms, which are part of the shutdown order, have said the discrepancy is unfair and called on the governor to close the casinos as a public health hazard.

Sonoma County has been averaging about 300 cases a day the past week, which is more than San Francisco -- which has almost twice as many residents -- and three times what the county reported a month ago.

The county has seen 17,208 cumulative confirmed cases of COVID-19, accounting for roughly 3.38% of its population, and 180 confirmed deaths. It reported 203 new cases on Wednesday and three deaths.

Michael Cabanatuan and Erin Allday contributed to this report.

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