As the Stillaguamish Tribe reopens its Angel of the Winds Casino in Arlington on Wednesday afternoon, it becomes the first Western Washington tribe to do so since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Twenty-two tribes operate 29 casinos on their lands throughout the state.
As sovereign nations, tribes are not subject to the stay-at-home orders from Gov. Jay Inslee. They also depend on income from gaming to directly fund many essential government services.
The statewide Indian Gaming Association says the Nisqually and Squaxin Island tribes are expected to follow the Stillaguamish, reopening their casinos in Olympia and Shelton mid-month.
Tribes that have enough reserves are waiting until Memorial Day or the end of the month, says Ron Allen, the CEO of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe, and chairman of the Washington Indian Gaming Association.
“Devastating” is how Allen describes the impact of casino closures on most Washington tribes, “because so much of the tribal operations are supplemented by these gaming revenues.”
He says the unrestricted funds casinos generate directly fund everything from child and elder care programs to dental clinics and public safety.
The casinos also are big employers in many tribal communities.
But as they reopen, Allen says safety is a high priority. There’s a long list of minimum standards that all association members agreed to strive for.
“I think everybody agreed that employees have to wear masks,” Allen said, adding that masks are also recommended for patrons, but only some casinos will require them.
“Some are going to say they encourage it. Most are going to provide it, if you would like a mask. And most are going to be working closely with our public health safety officials to make sure that they're being very cautious and basically asking people to leave the premises if they see symptoms like coughing, etc.,” Allen said.
Other safety measures include wiping down high-touch surfaces frequently, providing hand sanitizer, limiting the number of patrons, and only operating every other slot machine, to ensure proper social distancing.
Individual tribes will tailor the best practices to suit particular needs, which might be different based on architecture or other distinctions. But he says the tribes are not taking these steps as any kind of act of defiance against the Inslee administration.
“We highly respect the objectives of the governor and the state and the health care officials,” Allen said. “And we feel that we can open the properties safely….in a way that will not cause a spike,” in cases of COVID-19.
He says they also are trying to discourage people from traveling long distances to get to the casinos, an issue that will lessen as more open, especially those along the Interstate 5 corridor.
Inslee's office has said it would prefer that people stay home and not attend venues such as casinos until public health data indicate it is time and new protocols are in place to protect public safety.
The Kalispel tribe, located near Spokane, was the first in the state to reopen a casino, on May 5.