Three area Gila River Hotels & Casinos locations are back in business after they closed for two weeks following the death of an employee from COVID-19.
Wild Horse Pass, Lone Butte and Vee Quiva reopened last week with enhanced safety procedures and health protocols.
“The decision came after thorough evaluation and enhancement of the Gila River Gaming Enterprise’s safety plan in coordination with the Gila River Indian Community Council and input from team members,” a spokeswoman said.
She said Gila River Gaming Enterprise, Inc. developed a plan that “incorporates guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS), and the Gila River Indian Community. As pandemic safety practices evolve, this plan will adapt and incorporate updated best practices to ensure the highest degree of safety possible.
The tribe’s three casinos – Lone Butte, Wild Horse Pass and Vee Quiva – were among the first to reopen, along with Fort McDowell Casino and Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino, on May 15 after the COVID-19 stay-at-home order ended.
But only a month later, they shut down after an employee at Lone Butte died from the coronavirus.
The family of security worker Robert Washington told local television news stations that he had diabetes and was uneasy returning to work in May but he felt he had no choice because he otherwise couldn’t afford his insulin.
“He was absolutely fearful for his future,” Washington’s daughter said. “There was no social distancing as he explained to me, there was no active sanitation.”
All employees of Gila River Hotels & Casinos were on paid leave during the two-week closure.
“These enhanced health and safety measures go beyond CDC and AZDHS guidelines,” said Kenneth Manuel, CEO of Gila River Gaming Enterprise, Inc. “The safety of our valued team members and guests are our priority.”
“As a major employer, entertainment provider and revenue contributor to the Gila River Indian Community and the State of Arizona, we are committed to excellence,” he added. “We will continue to adapt and enhance our safety measures to provide the highest level of care and service for our team members and guests. We are doing everything we can during these unprecedented times to safeguard public health while also continuing to provide for our team members and the greater community.:
Manuel also said the corporation continues to mourn Washington’s death.
“We believe that the safety protocols that we are employing will create a safe environment for our guests and team members,” concluded Mr. Manuel.
Enhanced and additional health and safety measures include: non-smoking at all properties with designated smoking areas; daily closures from 2-10 a.m. for deep-cleaning; paid leave of absence for at-risk team members and COVID-19 testing for employees every two weeks; mandatory temperature checks for team members and guests upon arrival; mandatory face masks for all employees and patrons; extensive disinfection procedures training to protect workers and all visitors.
The spokeswoman said patrons will be advised to practice physical distancing. She said casino floors and gaming tables “have been redesigned to ensure physical distancing and reduced occupancy,” including Plexiglass separations between slot machines and 100 sanitation stations on gaming floors with bright green sign-age.
The slot machines also enable gamblers to alert a “cleaning ambassador” if they want their machine cleaned.
“Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Gila River Hotels & Casinos will continue to monitor and rely on the latest guidance from the CDC and AZDHS,” the spokeswoman said, adding it “will update its safety protocols and procedures as necessary to include best practices as part of their continued commitment to the safety and well-being of team members, guests and the greater community.”
Indian gaming has been severely impacted by the pandemic.
“There is no other way to say it except it’s a massive impact – negative impact,” said Alan Meister, CEO of Meister Economic Consulting, which studies the gaming industry.
Meister said that while most casinos’ revenues went to zero when everything closed, tribal governments still had costs for maintaining buildings during the closure. Opening back up, he said, is how tribal governments can start to earn back that revenue.
And it’s not just tribal governments that were hurting, but also casino employees and vendors, Meister said.
“Those secondary impacts are huge as well because that total loss of revenue at the direct level, where it’s at the casino, flows straight through to everything else. Those end up becoming huge losses,” he said.
Officials at the Arizona Department of Gaming said they did not release guidance on how tribes should operate during the curfew, which Ducey allowed to expire June 8.
“It is within the authority of each sovereign Tribal partner to determine opening and closing times,” said Max Hartgraves, a department legislative assistant.