Gila River Closes Arizona Casinos Again as COVID-19 Cases Soar, No Workers Test Positive After Guard’s Death

Posted on: June 19, 2020, 08:04h. 

Last updated on: June 19, 2020, 09:52h.

Three Arizona tribal casinos closed for the second time in three months on Thursday, with COVID-19 once again the reason for the shutdown.

Gila River casino closure COVID-19
The Vee Quiva Hotel and Casino is one of three Gila River Gaming Enterprises casinos that will close for a second time in Arizona because of the coronavirus. A recent spike in cases statewide led to Thursday’s announcement. (Image: Gila River Tribal Community)

Gila River Gaming Enterprises, Inc. said in a statement Thursday its Wild Horse Pass, Lone Butte, and Vee Quiva hotels and casinos locked the doors early Thursday morning “to reassess its current safety standards.”

It comes as the state has seen a dramatic spike in coronavirus cases in recent days. The state health department reports 46,689 COVID-19 cases in the state. More than 12 percent of those cases have been reported over the last two days, with more than 3,200 reported Friday.

The closure also comes one week after a casino security guard who contracted the virus died. Gila River issued a separate release on Friday saying the tribal community’s thoughts and prayers are with Robert Washington’s family.

We do not know if Mr. Washington contracted the virus at work.But our testing program did identify his infection, and our contact tracing program has confirmed that no co-workers who were in contact with him during the short time he was back on the job have tested positive,” the tribal statement read.

While the casinos are closed, staff members and management will determine if the current wave of cases subsides and re-evaluate how to conduct daily gaming operations.

Tribal leaders will also use updated information from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Arizona Department of Health Services to revise its policies and practices.

No Reopening Until Deemed Safe

Thursday’s statement said the closure would last two weeks. However, on Friday, Gila River said the casinos will stay shuttered until the review is complete, and tribal leaders, along with public health experts, “deem it safe” to open.

“Life is sacred to our people. We will do all we can to protect it,” the statement concluded.

On Thursday, tribal officials said employees will be paid during the two-week period and receive full health care benefits. Gila River spokeswoman Taeya Vicente told Friday night tribal leaders have only approved paying workers for the first two weeks.

“After that, it will be re-evaluated by the Gila River Tribal Council,” she said in a text message.

The Gila River casinos reopened on May 15 after being closed for nearly two months by the pandemic. When they resumed operations more than a month ago, they limited capacity to 50 percent. Among the policies the casinos established in reopening include adding distance between machines, installing plexiglass dividers between slots and table games, eliminating poker rooms at Wild Horse Pass and Vee Quiva, and restricting all bingo sessions at Vee Quiva to just 210 players and three players per table. Lone Butte’s bingo hall remained closed.

The casinos also partnered with gaming manufacturer IGT to use new technology notifying staff when a machine needed cleaning.

The casinos were among the first in the nation to reopen, and now appear to be the first to close for a second time. The American Gaming Association has already factored in the reclosures on its casino online tracking map. As of Friday, only 255 of the country’s 989 tribal and commercial casinos remain closed.

While the casino opened last month, the hotels at Wild Horse Pass and Vee Quiva did not open their hotels until this week. According to the release, all hotel reservations through July 19 will be canceled and refunded.

Daughter Hopes “Hearts” Can Change

Washington’s daughter has been outspoken about her father’s death, and those comments continued on social media Friday.

“I appreciate the prayers for my family, but we should also pray for the people in power to change their hearts,” Lina Washington tweeted Friday in response to the Gila River statement. “Because it took the death of a beloved AZ community member, father, son & husband for anyone to seemingly give a damn about the safety of employees & patrons at casinos.”

Robert Washington is scheduled to be laid to rest Sunday in a “socially distant celebration” of his life, she said in a separate message.