California Tribes Consider Reopening Plans

California has 62 gaming tribes, all with different plans for reopening their casinos once the coronavirus begins to recede. Chairman Gregory Michael Sarris, of Graton Rancheria (l.) in Sonoma County, said, “We follow the health mandates so we can reopen and stay open.”

California Tribes Consider Reopening Plans

A longtime observer of tribal gaming, a member of one of the largest gaming tribes in California, has described the overall atmosphere there as like “The Hunger Games,” with the coronavirus shutdown creating an “existential threat.”

The crisis has revealed how fragile the system is for tribes who depend entirely on gaming for government funding. Some things are clear: Casinos may not return to what they once were for a long time. Openings will be in increments. Casinos will focus on slots with minimal amenities, with every other machine distancing, at a minimum.

Despite insisting on their sovereign rights, the leaders are prepared to defer Governor Newsom.

One casino that recently floated a date, May 1, for reopening is the Mono Wind Casino in Central California, owned by the Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians.

Chairwoman Elizabeth D. Kipp told GGB News: “There have been discussion of May 1 to open, but we have yet to determine if that date is viable. Of course, we will take into consideration the governor’s remarks, as well as other agencies to ensure that the health and safety of the guests and employees are protected.

“Casino management and tribal gaming agencies have been working hand in hand to ensure that the correct policy and procedures are in place by analyzing many agency guidelines to update current policies for the opening of the Mono Wind Casino. Strategic planning for implementation and training will have to be in effect before any decision is made by the tribal council to open the gaming facility.”

Although it has fewer than 500 employees, Mono Wind is unable to access the CARES Act’s Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funds. “The casino and tribal government continue to employ employees, but with the tribes unable to utilize the PPP, for the gaming facility, we may have to take another approach. For the meantime, we’re doing everything we can to continue with employment,” said Kipp.

The pandemic hasn’t yet affected the Mono Indians’ quality of life, she said. “The tribal council has made every effort possible to supply families with the essential needs, as much as possible. We’ve delivered food, water, cleaning supplies—everything that there seems to be a shortage of here in California. We’ve cleaned out every janitorial closet, and supplied our tribal community with what we have on hand.

“We also have provided pickup of medication for our elders and have become personal shoppers for them, to allow the elders to stay home and not have to leave to be in areas of concern. We’ve created activity kits for the children in the K-12 grades. We continue to have community food banks. It’s been an interesting time, but with every native community, we know what our needs are, and will support as much as we can to help all families.”

Perhaps surprisingly, Kipp doesn’t foresee major problems with reopening. “The casino is already in a very sanitized and clean environment. We believe it will be a smooth transition to open.”

She added, “I am so proud of our community. It makes my heart feel so good to see our seamstress making masks and distributing to those in need. Everyone is doing their part in protecting each other. The casino restaurant provides breakfast, lunch and dinner. All orders are called in and picked up as a drive-through. We also have a general store and fuel station open, which are great additions to the tribe’s revenue during this time.”

Graton Resort & Casino

The first California casino to close is also one of the largest, Graton Resort & Casino near Rohnert Park in Sonoma County, one of the most lucrative markets in the state.

Chairman Gregory Michael Sarris of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria said he’ll defer to the governor on the time to reopen. “I think we’ll work something out as to when and how,” he told GGB News. “But certainly I’ll be in direct communication with the governor about reopening. He was very good about waiving the revenue share based on our compact for six months.”

The tribe’s “unique” gaming compact negotiated with then Governor Jerry Brown brings “a significant portion” of revenue sharing back to Rohnert Park and Sonoma County, he said. “For first quarter, we’ll meet those obligations.” For the rest, “The governor, who has been so kind and smart to work with us, will use that as a credit for us.”

Sarris hopes Graton’s reopening will serve as a model, not just for tribes but for commercial casinos. “It will take into consideration social distancing and so forth. Two nights ago, I purchased 10 of those high-end machines that instantly detect your temperature and the amount of fluid in your nose.”

Similar to what Wynn plans in Las Vegas, the tribe will do facial recognition, “so we will know who and what is in the casino. We’ll lock down every other slot machine, and beef up security and maintenance. Machines will be wiped down every time someone steps away. We’ll also know any time someone takes off their mask,” said Sarris. “We’re talking about doing what we can to open as soon as possible.

“We are describing a brave new world. The irony is it may turn out that casinos will be the safest places to go in Sonoma County. Schools can’t afford the kind of surveillance and procedures. Safeway (supermarkets) don’t have those measures. We can afford the kind of health security measures others can’t.”

The Graton Rancheria hasn’t suffered a grave financial hit—yet, Sarris said. “We’ve been very fortunate. We’ve always been a generous tribe. We paid 2,000 team members through April. In May, full-salaried employees will keep those salaries. Our folks will not be fired. Hourly people will furloughed, so we can continue to pay their full medical benefits.”

So far, tribal quality of life has not been affected. “We’ve been in pretty good shape,” said Sarris. “As a leader I’ve been conservative with our revenues and how to use them. Graton is in a much better place than other tribes.”

One thing to consider in reopening is not changing things so much they can’t eventually be restored. “We’re thinking Casino 101. Ninety percent will be slots, losing half of them and not having gatherings.” He envisions card tables limited to three players, with everyone masked. “We’ll be able to manage without a lot of construction, and then pray to God that we get a vaccine, so we won’t have to tear up our floor too much. We’ll reopen as simply as possible, and first of all, only let so many people in.”

While there may be an initial rush, “I don’t think folks will have the expendable income” to gamble or pursue other entertainment options, he said. But safety comes first.

“This isn’t about losing money, it’s about losing lives,” Sarris said. “If we don’t take care of ourselves and follow shelter-in-place (orders), we’re not going to reopen. Or there will be a second wave and we’ll close again. We follow the health mandates so we can reopen and stay open.”

Cache Creek Casino Resort

Cache Creek Casino Resort, operated by the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, is northwest of Sacramento, in Brooks, California.

Tribal Chairman Anthony Roberts old GGB News, “As a sovereign nation, it’s our responsibility to make decisions for the well-being of our citizens, staff and guests. I’ll give you an example: out of an abundance of caution, we suspended operations at Cache Creek Casino Resort well before the governor’s office asked casinos to close. We’re all in this together, and we believe the most successful steps we take in combatting coronavirus are the steps we can all take together.”

Many things must happen first, Roberts said, “and some of that is happening already. We’re creating space for social distancing. We’re keeping everything clean and disinfected, and then cleaning and disinfecting it all again. We’ll need to make arrangements to get a lot of our staff back on-site and replenish our pantries. This list goes on and on.”

How badly has the tribe been hit? “Our financial losses are staggering, but we’re so grateful for the good health of our community. We’ve canceled events, reduced operating hours of our government offices and hit the pause button on projects. But we’ve done that to make certain we haven’t had to reduce services to our tribal citizens now, when they need support the most.”

He added, “People are anxious. They’re being told to stay at home. We’re not getting together and connecting with one another in some of those beloved, traditional ways that we cherish most. But so far, we’ve kept Covid-19 out of our community.”

Moreover, no one has been laid off, Roberts said. “We want to give our people some certainty in this uncertain time. Also, we’re one of the largest employers in our county, and we take very seriously the impact our decisions have on the economic health of our neighbors. It’s been difficult to even quantify how sharply these decisions have impacted us, but we sincerely believe that if we can provide for the health of our people and the health of our economy now, real recovery will come that much sooner.”

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.