Tribal Casino Restaurants Self-Direct for Reopening as Nevada Dining Slowly Returns Come Saturday

Posted on: May 8, 2020, 02:03h. 

Last updated on: May 8, 2020, 02:25h.

Most of Nevada’s restaurants have permission from state officials to start reopening for dine-in service on Saturday, with many safety precautions in place to protect from coronavirus risk. Gaming properties must wait for a later reopening under rules from Gov. Steve Sisolak.

Nevada Restaurants To Reopen
Jonodev Chaudhuri (in 2019), a past chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) who is now an attorney at Quarles & Brady in Washington, DC, made several recommendations for tribal casinos when reopening restaurants. (Image: Indian Country Today)

Customers who show up at Nevada restaurants this weekend will find eateries that have strict social distancing guidelines. They will also have caps on the number of diners.

Restaurants will limit the number of dine-in customers to 50 percent, according to Eater Las Vegas. Tables will be six feet apart.

Employees will be wearing masks. Reservations are recommended.

Self-Governance Continues at Tribal Casinos

Restaurants located at tribal casinos nationwide will make decisions internally on when to reopen. Some, in states like Idaho, are already open.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, a past chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) who is now an attorney at Quarles & Brady in Washington, DC, explained to the decision to reopen tribal casino restaurants is largely decided in a self-governing process.

NIGC guidance is focused on what takes place on the gaming floor. Individual Tribal Gaming Regulatory Authorities (TGRAs) regulate each gaming operation on their own, based on tribal and federal law, he said.

Tribes can apply federal guidelines if they choose to non-gaming operations, such as restaurants. But such a step is not required, Chaudhuri explained.

Local tribal officials and restaurant management can also follow “best practices” from trade associations or Indian gaming associations for casino restaurants or hotels, Chaudhuri said.

Gaming compacts with states may include some kind of “tie-in” between gaming and non-gaming operations in casinos. The language needs to be checked for any requirements on restaurants regarding state agency rules.

Another source of requirements may be in third-party agreements casinos signed with chains or franchises located at tribal properties, Chaudhuri said.

He further recommends that tribal officials planning to reopen restaurants at casinos need to understand which laws apply. For instance, whether tribal law applies, or federal law may apply. State compacts may apply depending on the specific agreements.

Chaudhuri also encourages tribal officials to find “best practices” from national organizations. But they need to be “tailored” to individual operations, he adds.

These guidelines will help determine “baseline” health standards for employees and guests, Chaudhuri said. They could also help in setting up social distancing and sanitization plans, as well as determine adequate staffing.

Flexibility is key in any reopening plans,” Chaudhuri further advised. Restaurants must be able to expand or contract, based on the number of guests allowed as conditions change, he adds.

Locally, individual tribal health departments regulate restaurants at local tribal casinos. Each department has its own set of health codes with which the restaurants must comply, Chaudhuri said.

“Tribal governments have been very aggressive about responding to the coronavirus crisis,” Chaudhuri added. He notes that tribal casinos shuttered before requirements were issued by state officials.

“Indian gaming was ahead of the curve,” Chaudhuri said. “The Indian gaming industry closed 100 percent of the industry voluntarily without any state mandate.”

He said ongoing cooperation between state and local partners and the Indian gaming industry is likely to continue. There will also be “goodwill” from customers, he said.

Restaurants Face Challenges

More generally, Barry Shuster, executive editor of Restaurant Startup & Growth, the magazine of and a professor at North Carolina Central University School of Business, said several issues face restaurant owners/management.

Financially, the challenges facing these restaurants once they are allowed to open are the same for all full-service restaurants,” Shuster told “Can you survive on half or less of seated guests in a business in which margins are already tight?”

“Also, will guests have the confidence to dine in, or the interest in sitting down in a restaurant where the servers are wearing PPE and there are rigorous health and safety procedures? Restaurants are going to have to use innovative ways to build guest confidence and provide a pleasant ambiance under these restrictions,” he advised.

“In my way of thinking, restaurants in casinos will continue to enjoy the captive audience of guests drawn to gambling,” Shuster added. “That said, casino traffic will also likely be limited due to social distancing requirements.”

Practically, there could be partitions in dine in restaurants and new seating layouts. Booths might be discouraged, Shuster adds.

Restaurants may implement cost-cutting measures, too. “I believe operators are going to reduce menu item selection to reduce inventory and increase cross-utilization of ingredients. Labor will be streamlined throughout the house,” Shuster said.

As far as bars, Shuster said he has noted “significant restrictions on bars, including prohibiting operation until the last stages of state reopening plans.

“State restaurant associations are pushing changes in the way alcohol can be sold, including relaxing restrictions on take out of mixed drinks, because bar service is so important to mid-scale and upscale concepts,” he said. “If bars remain closed in casinos, they are going to have to figure out how they are going to drive alcohol sales.”

Pent-Up Demand for Dine-In Meals

Anecdotal reports indicate “some pent-up demand for full-service dining, as people are fatigued by isolation,” Shuster added. “Still, there will be a long tail coming out of this crisis.”

In addition, casino restaurant operators need to look for best practices of chain and independent restaurateurs for ideas at their own establishments, Shuster recommends.