Tribal Gaming

Tribal Casino Leaders Want More COVID-19 Funds, Confident on Safety

Tribal chairs and top tribal executives overwhelmingly believe they have sufficient procedures in place to reopen safely. But the majority also says tribes need more federal coronavirus relief funds to offset devastating community effects, according to a recent survey.

A worker sanitizes a slot machine on opening day in May at Sycuan Casino in California. (Image: Eduardo Contreras/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A recent survey from the Seattle Entertainment Group revealed that 92 percent of top tribal casino officials say they have procedures in place to reopen their gaming properties safely.

However, 97 percent of casino executives also said the $8 billion in coronavirus relief funds is insufficient to mitigate the economic impact caused by the pandemic, and just 3 percent of casino management officials taking part in the survey are confident they can resume normal operations by the end of 2020. 

This year’s shuttering of US tribal gaming properties because of the pandemic is leading to economic anxiety for the tribes, their workers, and communities, as well as the states in which they operate, several experts have told Casino.org.

Gaming revenue from tribal casinos typically funds key reservation operations, such as health care.

The survey included responses from over 457 tribal chairs and over 230 CEOs from tribal casinos.

Amplified Effect

The survey also highlighted the devastating effects of casino closures on Indigenous tribal communities.

Before the pandemic, there was a shortage of safe drinking water, healthy food, power, stores, and housing on many remote tribal reservations, according to a statement from the survey group, the Seattle Entertainment Group noted. But since the outbreak, these issues are “amplified and cause a ripple effect. That very ripple could lead to a mass dissolution of the tribal governments who are in charge of governing their tribal-state(s).”

And these effects don’t surprise some experts, like Attorney Rory Dilweg, a partner in Colorado’s Ocotillo Law and Policy Partners.

“Every tribal leader and casino executive I have talked to is very concerned about how to keep patrons, employees, and the community safe while still being able to pay employees and earn money to provide necessary services to tribal members,” Dilweg told Casino.org.

Dilweg further points out that the $8 billion for tribal relief is not enough to spur recovery. “Not only were tribes’ only businesses shuttered,” he said. “But the tribes also had to provide greater services to their members and communities.”

In addition, the Rev. Richard McGowan, a finance professor at Boston College who closely monitors gambling trends, told Casino.org that the finding that 6 percent of Native American-owned casinos are closed, “is not surprising, given that casinos often are the biggest source of revenue on many reservations.”

New Normal

While the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, the gaming industry continues to navigate new standards.

“I do not believe it will go back to the way it was any time soon,” Dilweg said. “If I feel that way after five-plus months of COVID-19, I think it will be a long time before things remotely get back to normal.”

In addition, Anthony Cabot, Distinguished Fellow in Gaming Law at UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, told Casino.org that “As the tribal casinos are spread out from coast to coast, each faces unique challenges as it relates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many are within the pandemic hot spots, so the number that remain closed may be even higher than 6 percent,” Cabot said. “Moreover, the report is undoubtedly accurate that $8 billion will be far lower than the actual financial impact caused by the pandemic. This has a disproportionate impact on communities that rely on casino revenues for basic services.”

Cabot hopes that additional coronavirus funds will be included in the next Congressional relief package. However, some experts believe casinos may not be at the forefront of financial aid.

“I doubt that public policy officials are concerned with the survival of a casino as compared to other small businesses… It is a tough sell to say that casinos are essential,” McGowan said.

Ed Silverstein

Gaming Law, Tribal Gaming, Crime, Gaming Research----An award-winning journalist with credits ranging from the Associated Press to American Lawyer Media, Ed joined the Casino.org news team in 2019 with decades of legal reporting expertise under his belt. His past reporting and editing assignments include Cowles Business Media, Columbia University Press, the Connecticut Post, and Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc. Besides the law and its application to the gaming industry, Ed’s areas of expertise span business, courts, crime, politics, education, and state and local government. With an undergraduate degree from the University of Connecticut (where he now lives), and master’s degrees from Harvard and Yale, Ed’s professional awards include recognition from the New England Press Association and New England AP News Executives. Email: ed.silverstein@casino.org

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Ed Silverstein