‘No Compromise on Safety’: New San Manuel Chairman

When it comes to reopening its casino, California’s San Manuel Tribe is in no hurry. Kenneth Ramirez, recently elected tribal chairman (being sworn in at left), believes in safety first; the San Manuel Casino in Highland, San Bernardino County, is expected to open sometime in June.

‘No Compromise on Safety’: New San Manuel Chairman

Kenneth Ramirez was recently elected chairman of the San Manuel Band of Serrano Mission Indians in San Bernardino County, California. But his experience in Indian gaming and tribal government are broad and deep.

Ramirez has been in Indian gaming since 1986, in different roles, including as general manager of the San Manuel Casino in the 1990s, and as a member of the tribal gaming commission.

His tenure as GM “occurred up to and through a period when the tribe went directly to California voters to secure Vegas-style games, which was a time of some uncertainty,” Ramirez told GGB News. “We didn’t have a playbook in those early days, but our tribe figured out how to forge a pathway forward and became experienced at adapting and innovating.

“We’ve always been led by a clear set of values.”

Those values guided the tribe’s decision to reopen the San Manuel Casino on May 31 at the earliest, and possibly in June, unlike some other California tribes.

“In consultation with our medical experts, local and state health officials, and in consideration of Governor (Gavin) Newsom’s plans to reopen California, we determined that anything before then would not be in the best interest of our community,” Ramirez said. “Bottom line is, we have no intention to be the first casino to open. Instead, we’re focusing on making sure we open when it is safe to do so, and when we can provide the best experience for our guests.”

Ramirez serves on Newsom’s Task Force on Business and Jobs Recovery, which is chaired by billionaire activist Tom Steyer, and also includes former Federal Reserve Chairman Janet Yellen, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger and Willie Adams, president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“I would daresay that many of 80 members of the task force likely have not had an opportunity to discuss socioeconomic issues with a tribal leader,” Ramirez said. “I’ve been proud to share these perspectives with these high-profile business, community and labor leaders, and openly exchange information and ideas.” As a task force member, Ramirez said, he’s had a closer look at “the real impacts of the pandemic on the entire state and citizens.”

The casino is vital to the local economy. As a tribal enterprise, it employs 5,000 people (4,000 specifically for casino operations), while supporting local vendors and charitable efforts. It generates nearly $1 billion of economic impact in San Bernardino County, and $1.4 billion statewide.

Tribal leaders insist that several things must happen before reopening. “Firstly, we must believe it’s the right time based on the factors previously mentioned. Our operations team needs to tell us that they’re ready to deliver on their plans—this means new technologies, new operating procedures, and new sanitation protocols, plus training for our team members on the new way of serving our guests.”

Next, the gaming commission must be comfortable managing the changed environment. “Bottom line is, we’ll open when we can deliver on our commitments to all stakeholders and provide a safe environment for our employees and our guests,” Ramirez said.

Because the casino is the tribe’s primary economic engine, its closure has pummeled government revenues, “but we have endeavored to provide the most essential services to our citizens,” said Ramirez.

Throughout the closure, the tribe has kept all 5,000 employees on salary with full benefits. In mid-April, employee pay was adjusted, with senior staff taking the greatest reductions, but all benefits remained 100 percent. A Paycheck Protection Program loan kept 80 hotel employees—primarily housekeepers, maintenance workers and culinary staff—gainfully employed.

The San Manuel also remained alert to the healthcare needs of its elders, keeping in mind the increased susceptibility of Native Americans to Covid-19.

Reopening will be a challenge, Ramirez acknowledged. “Very few organizations are deeply experienced with managing through such unprecedented circumstances. San Manuel is launching health and safety initiatives, including the development of training, new roles and communication efforts focused on keeping our guests, team members and the community safe. And we need to be poised and nimble to rapidly adjust, if needed.”

The property will return “with limited capacity and social distancing in place, which means fewer gaming positions will be available. We expect to offer limited services initially in several areas with the intent to normalize over time,” said Ramirez.

Other safety measures will include:

  • Temperature checks/ health screening at entrances for team members and guests
  • Rigorous and increased sanitization across the operation
  • Proper handwashing guidance and face covering requirements

Ramirez said the management team is adhering to “a clear mandate: we simply won’t compromise on the health or safety of our community.”

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.