Casinos on Native American Soil Balance the Risks of COVID-19 and Economic Collapse 

Tribal gaming is caught in a catch-22 situation as the country’s economy slowly recovers and the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths rises: either it can restore an economic pillar on which many tribal nations rely, or it can shut down operations and lose that funding. 

The knowledge that the epidemic has had a disproportionate impact on Native Americans and that casinos can act as super-spreaders of COVID-19 complicates the decision. Finally, federally recognized tribes are sovereign countries, which means they can decide whether or not to open their doors to the public. 

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe, located in western Idaho near the state line with Washington, was one of the groups that struggled with this decision. According to Heather Keen, the director of strategic development for Marimn Health, the tribe’s health care and wellness center, the decision to reopen the casino was made when no new cases of COVID-19 were reported between the time the casino closed on March 20 and the time it reopened on May 1. 

Casinos, as seen in Las Vegas, have the potential to act as vectors for the spread of COVID-19

“The casino’s revenues fund critical services on the reservation such as law enforcement, social services, public works, public infrastructure, and essential tribal government operations,” Keen explained. “Law enforcement, social services, public works, public infrastructure, and essential tribal government operations” are among the services provided. “Any extension of the casino’s closure beyond what is strictly required would ultimately jeopardize our community’s long-term health and safety even more than the continued spread of COVID-19.” 

The case of Las Vegas demonstrates that casinos have the potential to act as COVID-19 superspreaders. According to Amandine Gamble, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-author of a study on the virus’s persistence on various surface types, this is due to the indoor environment; the sharing of touching objects such as tokens, cards, and slot machines; and the fact that employees interact with a diverse range of people daily. 

On numerous occasions, Gamble’s concerns have been proven to be justified

In June, a worker at the Gila River Casino Lone Butte in Arizona died from the Coronavirus. The Gila River Indian Community runs the casino. The Coyote Valley Casino in Northern California initially did not disclose that one of its employees had become infected with the virus, prompting other casino employees to express their concerns on social media.

According to an ABC affiliate, employees at Thunder Valley Casino Resort, located just north of Sacramento, claimed that proper social distancing rules and safety measures were not followed. The casino’s management denied the employees’ claims. Furthermore, on July 25, a writer for the newspaper The South Florida Sun-Sentinel observed similar behavior of customers at the Seminole Tribe-operated Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, Florida. These clients have been described as “young and irresponsible.” A worker at an Oklahoma tribal casino tested positive for the virus, and a similar situation occurred at a North Carolina tribal casino, where there were five confirmed cases of COVID-19. 

Because of the concurrent crises in public health and the economy, Native American tribe leaders are considering ways to diversify their economies and have asked the federal government for increased support. To summarize, it is not as simple as weighing the benefits of economic well-being versus those of public health. The topic of what lies ahead in the future is also important. 

Casinos play an important role in tribal nations’ economic planning; however, there is a catch: only a few of those casinos can keep their economies afloat. Gary Davis, the executive director of the Native American Financial Services Association and an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, stated in an April opinion piece for USA Today, “Just as the federal government has a sacred responsibility to American Indians and Alaska Natives, so do our tribal governments.” Davis’ article was released in April. “It is our leaders’ responsibility to build a modern, diverse portfolio of businesses that will protect our tribal economies from future threats like pandemics.” 

Davis concluded that “gaming is not a magic bullet” for tribal economic development

The passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act in 1988 marked the beginning of tribal casinos’ modern history. This act allowed independent tribal governments to enter into agreements with states to generate revenue from gaming activities. Because the federal government has a long history of underinvestment in Indian countries, casino-based economies have become a mainstay in many tribal nations. 

“Tribal casinos grew out of, quite frankly, the desperation of tribal leaders trying to figure out how they could effectively build a tribal community economy,” says Kathryn Rand, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy and former dean of the University of North Dakota School of Law. “As a result, tribes began dabbling in high-stakes bingo beginning in the 1970s and continuing into the 1980s. It had a low initial investment and people flocked to it. 

Temecula, California’s Pechanga Resort Casino

Already, the loss of these revenue streams is having a disastrous impact on native communities’ way of life. According to a Wisconsin State Journal article, 241 federally recognized tribes stand to lose a total of $22.4 billion in revenue due to casino closures in 2018. Casinos generated $35 billion in revenue for Native American tribes in 2019. 

Casinos play an important role in tribal nations’ economic planning; however, there is a catch: only a few of those casinos keep their economies afloat. They are usually located near urban areas, where there are more clients and a more consistent customer base. According to the National Indian Gambling Commission, as of 2018, only 19 percent of tribal casinos accounted for 75 percent of Indian gaming revenue. Despite Governor Newsom’s reservations, the ten tribal casinos in San Diego County were the first to reopen in the state in May. 

According to Steven Light, co-director of the Institute for the Study of Tribal Gaming Law and Policy with Rand, gaming creates “a big nexus” for the generation of jobs and business partnerships that extend beyond tribal boundaries in areas where tribal casinos are located closer to urban cores. 

San Diego County, which is home to ten different tribal casinos, is one example of this “nexus.” Despite Governor Gavin Newsom’s initial opposition, the casinos were the first to reopen across the state in May. The state’s gaming trade organization is dissatisfied because the state continues to close casinos that are not on tribal lands. 

Consider the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe as a rural counter-example. The tribe had a $4 million financial shortfall as of June 25th, the majority of which was due to lost casino revenue during the period when its casinos were closed between March 24 and May 15.

According to Avis Little Eagle, a Standing Rock Sioux council member, in better economic times, the money would often be allocated to important services such as cancer treatment, the upkeep of veterans’ cemeteries, child services, and elder care, among other things. The tribe received $21 million as a result of the CARES Act, $6 million of which will be used to purchase emergency supplies such as food, water, and propane, as well as strike teams and medical emergency response personnel. P Potawatomi Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin is a casino and hotel. However, government funds cannot compensate for the fact that the casino will be closed for nearly two months. 

According to Light, “those tribes are likely still coping with high levels of poverty and high levels of unemployment” in the rural areas where they live.” And, while the tribal casino is a significant source of employment and government revenue, it is not sufficient to ensure that the tribe now has a surplus of funds to spend “the author composes “And the tribal casino is a significant source of employment and revenue.” 

Before the implementation of COVID-19 in 2018, the Standing Rock reservation had a 43.2 percent poverty rate and a 79 percent unemployment rate. In general, the poverty rate among Native Americans was more than 25%, which was more than double the national average during the same period. Because of the dire circumstances, the tribe administration has been forced to keep its casinos open, despite public health concerns. 

The Standing Rock Elders Preservation Council filed a lawsuit in May against the tribe’s governmental leadership as well as two casinos. 

Little Eagle, who has served on the tribal council since its inception in 2011, is well acquainted with this perilous position

Little Eagle, who also publishes the independent Native American publication Teton Times, was among the first tribe members to object to the reopening of the tribe’s two casinos. She wasn’t the only one who was concerned. The Standing Rock Elders Preservation Council and two additional plaintiffs filed a civil action on May 29 against the tribe’s two casinos as well as the tribe’s governmental leadership. According to the complaint, “reopening the casinos will cause irreparable and unfathomable injury and death to” tribal community members. 

As of August 21st, the tribe had reported 169 positive cases and four deaths on the reservation, which has a little more than 8,200 enrolled members. However, none of those incidents could be linked to the casino in any way. Little Eagle praised the tribe’s and state government’s collaborative efforts to conduct COVID-19 testing on a large scale, as well as the preventative measures implemented by the tribe’s casinos to keep reported cases under control. 

“In retrospect, my biggest concern was that nobody caught it because workers were bringing it home,” she added. “In retrospect, I see that nobody detected it because workers were carrying it home.” “We’re still monitoring it, but everything appears to be falling into place. They now have both the rules and the protocols. They have a plan in place for anything that might happen, so they are ready for anything. 

The Navajo Nation has not reopened any of its four casinos since March 17, though Standing Rock has kept all of its casinos open. Despite its remote location in the Four Corners region, which includes Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the reservation is home to more than 173,000 people. The Navajo Nation had more fatalities in June than any other 15 states combined, and it had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the United States measured per capita. Despite an order to “remain at home” that was only recently rescinded, the number of cases has been steadily decreasing in recent months. 

The Navajo Nation terminated its paid leave program for its casinos and laid off 1,180 employees at the end of July

According to Brian Parrish, interim CEO of the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise, the tribe is attempting to diversify its economy. This includes the operation of its utility for power generation, the receipt of revenues from oil and gas extraction, and the production of agricultural goods. 

The CARES Act provided the nation with an additional $714.1 million, which is equivalent to 8.9 percent of the total budget committed to tribal country funding by the statute. Nonetheless, casino revenue accounts for 70% of the Navajo Nation’s overall budget, according to Parrish. The tribe’s casinos are still closed nearly a year after the pandemic began. As a result, the tribe terminated its paid leave program and laid off 1,180 casino employees at the end of July.

The casinos, which were among the first businesses closed by the tribal nations on March 17, will remain closed until at least August 31st. The Navajo Nation Council voted on August 17 to authorize $24.6 million in emergency funds to put the casinos’ workforces back on paid leave in response to demands from the tribe’s gaming unit. According to the results of the 2010 Census in the United States, the Navajo Nation has a poverty rate of 38%. 

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is not the only large casino conglomerate that has reduced its workforce significantly due to layoffs. The Forest County Potawatomi Community, which owns the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, announced on July 17 that 1,600 employees would be furloughed. On August 17, Seneca Gaming Corporation announced the layoff of 150 employees across its three casino facilities in New York. 

The current crisis has compelled Native American leaders to reconsider the importance of holding the federal government accountable for fulfilling its treaty obligations. 

Davis of the Native American Financial Services Association wrote in an opinion piece for USA Today that “while tribes’ economic development efforts are designed to foster nation-building and self-determination in the advancement of tribal sovereignty, our businesses are meant to supplement, not supplant, the funds owed to us by our treaties and compacts with the federal government.” “Even though our businesses are intended to supplement rather than replace the funds owed to us by our treaties and compacts with the federal government,” Davis wrote. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a former United States Senator, is among those advocating for at least $25 billion in tribal aid as part of the next COVID-19 stimulus package. 

According to the findings of a recent survey conducted and disseminated by the Native American-owned entertainment company Seattle Entertainment Group, 97 percent of tribal casino owners believe that the $8 billion allotted to tribes under the CARES Act is insufficient. Only 3% of casino owners are confident that they will be able to resume normal operations by the end of 2020. 

To achieve this goal, former US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado) and the National Indian Gaming Association’s Ernie Stevens, Jr. is lobbying for at least $25 billion to be allocated to tribes as part of the subsequent COVID-19 stimulus package. 

They wrote these words in an opinion piece that was published on August 25 in Indian Country Today. “The American economy is in peril,” they said, citing a 33 percent drop in GDP in the second quarter. “Indian nations are experiencing devastating economic losses, and if additional assistance is not provided, many Indian tribes’ businesses will never recover.” However, in the meantime, or if this occurs, the Navajo Nation has made the difficult decision to remain closed for the sake of the public’s health. 

It would be a betrayal of everything we believe in if we lost any of our team members. “We aim to enhance the quality of life of the Navajo people through a robust gaming industry,” Parrish stated in a news release dated August 17. We have faced some challenges as a result of the pandemic, but we remain optimistic that we will be able to reopen and restore order to our Navajo Gaming family soon.