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Leading the Way

Tribal casinos were the first U.S. casinos to reopen, and business has been brisk

Leading the Way

The first casinos to reopen in the U.S. after the pandmic shutdown were tribal properties. Tribes depend on casino revenue for government services, jobs and other essential needs, and in many cases took advantage of their status as sovereign nations to reopen before state officials gave the OK. They did so with an abundance of caution, with the health and safety of their patrons paramount.

The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain opened its doors at 10 a.m. May 21, more than two months after it closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We’ve seen strong visitation levels given our reduced occupancy protocols,” says President Mark Birtha. “We’ve been very fortunate that our loyal guests have returned. There is clearly pent-up demand for many in our region, given how long the state has been under a shelter-in-place status.”

Guests enjoy a complete integrated resort experience including gaming, dining, hotel and retail, Birtha says. “They seem impressed with the amount of investment and training we’ve made in our safety and sanitation protocols. Most people seem used to these expectations already, so there’s been no pushback or real confusion. They appreciate our efforts to keep their environment safe.”

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut reopened June 1.

Pokagon’s Four Winds Casinos in Michigan and Indiana reopened June 15. These properties, owned by sovereign nations, are not subject to the laws for commercial casinos like those in Atlantic City or Las Vegas. Yet all worked with local, state and federal agencies to develop safety measures to reopen.

“Although we are a sovereign nation, we’ve also considered recommendations from the federal government, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and governors from both Michigan and Indiana,” says Matthew Wesaw, tribal council chairman and CEO of the Pokagon Gaming Authority. “We’ve been closely monitoring the data related to the spread of Covid-19, consulting with medical experts and evaluating the potential impact the virus could have on our community and employees.”

Common Cooperation

Tribal leaders and casino operators as well as regulators coordinate regionally with other tribes in order to share information and best practices to ensure that the entire tribal government gaming industry demonstrates a commitment to safety, says Dr. Katherine A. Spilde, professor at the L. Robert Payne School of Hospitality and Tourism Management at San Diego State University, and endowed chair at the Sycuan Institute on Tribal Gaming.

“Each tribal government is reopening in the way that best protects the health and safety of their community, employees and guests,” says Spilde. “Certain areas of the U.S. have very different rates of infection based on population density, public health orders and other factors. Tribal leaders work closely with other government leaders to coordinate testing, implement social distancing and public health best practices and share information.”

Unlike a traditional business, tribal gaming requires hosting people in tribal homelands, which makes these decisions even more important.

“The reopening of our casinos comes at a critical time for our tribe and our employees that are in need of economic relief,” Wesaw says. “Unlike state and local governments which predominantly use tax dollars to operate, the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians relies on revenue from its business ventures to fund services for our citizens, including health care, housing, education, family services, financial support, police and more.”The Four Winds Casinos operations team has worked closely with the Pokagon Gaming Authority, the Pokagon Gaming Commission and the Pokagon Health Task Force to finalize the details, says Frank Freedman, chief operating officer. “We will be opening with some changes to our amenities and services,” he says.

Prior to reopening, Mohegan Sun relied on communication with and guidance from the tribal medical director, tribal health department and local, state and federal health officials.

“It’s always the intention of the Mohegan Tribal Council, Mohegan Tribal Chairman James Gessner and our leadership to remain cooperative partners with the state of Connecticut, and that certainly remains,” says Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun president and general manager. “We’ve considered some of their suggestions in further enhancing our safety measures, which were already very stringent—and totaled more than $1 million. The tribe follows or exceeds state and federal guidelines, and we look forward to further engagement with Governor Ned Lamont and his team as we progress into our Phase 1 partial reopening.”

More than 2,500 employees were on hand for the restart. The property had a soft opening the weekend prior to June 1 with select guests and Mohegan tribal members.

“This allowed our team members a chance to become more familiar with the safety measures in place,” Hamilton says. “As the next phases happen, more team members will continue to return, though at this time it’s still too early to provide a precise outlook.”

Foxwoods worked closely with the chief medical officer, the CDC and the state since the beginning of the pandemic to make certain they were in step with state guidelines to safely reopen. “All of Foxwoods’ new measures meet—and in many cases exceed—the state’s,” says Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which owns the property.

Hard Rock Sacramento, owned by the Estom Yumeka Maidu Tribe of the Enterprise Rancheria, has also acted in concert with local and state officials.

“We worked with the Yuba county Health Department to ensure we have all the appropriate measures in place,” Birtha says. “On May 13, Yuba and Sutter Counties had their state attestation approved and were able to advance further in easing restrictions. In consultation with the Yuba-Sutter health officer, our protocols have been reviewed and a commitment has been made to have periodic evaluations.”

The resort follows the Safe + Sound plan developed by Hard Rock International, which outlines a number of daily protocols that will be instituted at all its casinos, hotels and cafés that reopen. The plan is an enhanced safety program that makes sure hygiene and sanitation practices comply with the recommendations of the CDC and other health officials from Yuba-Sutter counties and the state of California.

“We take seriously our responsibility to do this right,” Birtha says. “We owe it to our entire community.” 

Different Protocols

Tribal casinos varied in how they reintroduced amenities in the early going. Hard Rock opened every dining venue except the buffet, but all at 50 percent capacity, with social distancing and disposable menus.

“We have outdoor seating at our Council Oak Steaks and Seafood signature restaurant as well, which has been a huge hit,” Birtha says.

Valet and group shuttle service was not immediately offered at Pokagon. And like Hard Rock, buffets were closed. Depending on the casino, dining will be available at player lounges, bars and steak houses.

Touchless menus will be available using a scanned QR code, and disposable menus will be provided on request. There will be more spacing between tables, and party sizes will be limited. Self-service beverage stations will now be staffed.

At Mohegan Sun, Todd English’s Tuscany (l.) is currently the only restaurant available for sit-down dining, but on their terrace only, with physical distancing protocols in place. Restaurants such as MJ23 Sports Bar & Grill, Sky Rise Food Court, Bobby’s Burger Palace and a few more are open for take-out only.

“Overall, food and beverage service for our Mohegan Sun guests has been steady and safe. Guests can enjoy their food or drink outside as well, with one popular location being the outdoor terrace of the Bean & Vine Café & Wine Bar,” Hamilton says.

At Foxwoods, all dining is takeout for the moment. “When we do indoor dining, each restaurant and bar will have reduced seating capacities to allow for a minimum of 6 feet between each seated party of guests. Hostesses and managers will manage physical distancing at entries, waiting areas and queues,” according to Butler. “We were very pleased with our guests’ reactions and acceptance of our new practices and safety protocols.”

Head counts ensured a volume of 25 percent capacity, monitored by employee counters at the entrances. “If guests arrive when we’re at capacity, they will kindly be asked to wait until we can accommodate new visitors,” says Butler.

Like casinos everywhere, tribal gaming halls require most of the following:

  • Face masks for guests and employees
  • Thermal temperature checks at entrances
  • Hand sanitizer stations
  • Enhanced cleansing and sanitizing
  • Social distancing
  • Reduced capacity
  • Plexiglas dividers
  • Reduced numbers of gaming positions for slots and table games

“This will surely be a new normal for our industry and virtually all industries for some time,” Hamilton says. “Our new protocols include every other slot machine being turned off, table game seating cut in half, 6-feet distance markings for any lines and four riders per elevator car. If capacities approach the max of what is available, that’s when our team will moderate.” 

At Foxwoods, if a guest or employee arrives without a face mask, one will be provided. Additional cleaning teams have been added in every area of the casinos with a focus on frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces.

“We’ve meticulously studied best practices, partnered closely with medical experts and tested multiple new types of safety measures. We’re confident in the investments we’ve made and the policies and procedures we’ve put in place to mitigate risks,” Butler says.

Videos from Las Vegas during its reopening in the first week of June showed guests without masks and sometimes crowded around table games. Trying to prevent such occurrences could create a sticky situation. At Pokagon properties, there will be no loitering around table games. Patrons will be asked to leave if they refuse to wear a mask, Freedman says. As far as social distancing on the casino floor, security and front-line staff will speak to the guests in a way that does not produce friction. “If they defy us, we walk them out,” he says.

So far, guests are adhering to the numerous safety and preventative measures, Hamilton says. “This will be a gradual road back for virtually all industries, though we’re really encouraged with the safe, fun and responsible Phase 1 reopening that has begun at Mohegan Sun.”

Says Freedman, “Hopefully, we can return to our full complement of gaming, dining, entertainment and event options.”

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Bill Sokolic is a veteran journalist who has covered gaming and tourism for more than 25 years as a staff writer and freelancer with various publications and wire services. He's also written stories for news, entertainment, features, and business. He co-authored Atlantic City Revisited, a pictorial history of the resort.

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