Native tribes across Washington State are eyeing early reopening of casinos, which closed on March 17 due to the coronavirus pandemic, losing millions of dollars in revenue and announcing massive layoffs. Now, as Phase 1 of Governor Jay Inslee’s plan for economic recovery launches this Tuesday, tribes plan to reopen certain gambling venues as early as the middle of May.
The past few weeks have been difficult for the United States economy, with thousands of companies being shut down during the COVID-19 crisis. The casino industry was hit particularly hard and although some states are slowly reopening, gambling establishments will be among the last to resume operations. This may not be true for tribal casinos across Washington, however, which are likely to reopen before most businesses in the state.
On Friday, Washington Governor Jay Inslee extended the stay-at-home order through May 31 and announced a 4-phase plan for recovery. Gov. Inslee’s “Safe Start Washington” plan for reopening the state’s economy commences today with Phase 1, which will see a small number of businesses resuming operations with restrictions. State parks will reopen, as well as essential businesses, automobile sales, car washes, and retail (curb-side pick-up orders only). Phase 2 starts on June 1, allowing restaurants and hair salons to open but with multiple restrictions.
Unlike commercial casinos, tribal gaming venues are allowed to make decisions independent of the state on the grounds of their sovereignty on reservation land. The reopening will be gradual, however, and up to tribal governments, according to W. Ron Allen, chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribe and chairman of the executive committee of the Washington Indian Gaming Association. It would take between 18 and 24 months before the industry could recover and begin operating at its full capacity, he added.
Tribes are the eighth largest employer in the state of Washington, providing direct employment for 30,715 people, data from recent research shows. The analysis by economist Jonathan Taylor for the Washington Indian Gaming Association indicates that the tribes employ more people in Washington than Starbucks, Costco Wholesale, or Walmart. Currently, there are 22 tribes in the state, operating a total of 29 casinos on reservation lands and generating more than $2 billion a year in revenues.
Tribal Casinos to Reopen as Early as May 11
The Stillaguamish Tribe will be the first to resume operations in the state, according to tribal chairman Shawn Yanity who said they are planning to reopen on May 11. The tribe operates Angel of the Winds Casino Resort in the North Sound and once it reopens, it will implement new health measures. All customers and staff will be required to wear face masks, while games will be farther spaced apart. Angel of the Winds will also be the first casino in the state to ban smoking.
The Stillaguamish, however, are not the only tribe planning to reopen their gaming facilities well ahead of other businesses in Washington. The Puyallups intend to open in mid to late May, spokesman Michael Thompson said on Friday. The nation is currently in talks with other tribes, hoping to come up with a solution that would give hope for the thousands who have lost their jobs but at the same time, a decision that would not undermine the health safety measures taken so far.
The Puyallups’s new Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, which was slated to open this spring, will not operate at full capacity. The new facility, which took 5 years to construct and around $5 million in investments, is a 310,000 sq ft property that will replace the tribe’s current casino. It includes a 110,000 sq ft casino with 2,133 gaming machines, as well as a 2,000-seat event center, a buffet, and a sports bar.
Around 2,400 people worked in the Puyallup tribe’s gaming operations prior to the March shutdown. According to Michael Thompson, communications director for the tribe, 12 percent of those employees have lost their jobs, while 73 percent are on furlough.