Casino closures during coronavirus hit Native American tribes especially hard

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The nationwide closures of casinos during the coronavirus pandemic have dealt a devastating blow to many Native American tribes relying on these enterprises as their main sources of income.

To protect people's health in tribes with limited medical resources, some 500 Native American casinos have closed voluntarily. The U.S. government authorized $8 billion for tribes in a coronavirus relief package this past March, but the distribution of that money has been a slow process.

"We can't fund any programs without the casino" — no health care, education, law enforcement or fire protection, said Phil Haugen, the chief operating officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority.

A sign last month indicating that the new Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Wash., owned by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, has been closed for the time being.

A sign last month indicating that the new Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma, Wash., owned by the Puyallup Tribe of Indians, has been closed for the time being. (AP, File)

While other Native American-owned casinos have reopened or plan to in coming weeks, most have remained closed. That's also forced layoffs and furloughs among over 1 million people working for tribes, many of them in casinos.

Furloughed workers had been getting by with unemployment benefits and health coverage that many casinos kept in place, said John DelMonte, the president of UAW Local 2121, a union representing 1,200 card dealers at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

While the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation has announced it's losing millions of dollars a week, protecting workers has been paramount. DelMonte said the tribe was listening to state officials as it decided when to reopen.

"Everybody is taking this pretty serious. That's a good thing,'' he said. "To open and close again would be terrible. Better safe than sorry.''

Meanwhile, over 5,000 employees at the casino complex owned by the Mohegan Tribe — nearly the entire workforce — have been furloughed but kept their health benefits, casino president Jeff Hamilton said.

In Oklahoma, many tribal governments that shut down casinos in mid-March kept paying employees. The Cherokee Nation said it's costing the tribe $30 million to $40 million a month to pay salaries and expenses while casinos and other businesses have been shuttered.

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In New Mexico, Native American-owned casinos providing some $820 million in annual revenue to 14 tribes have been shut down.

"I know for a fact that brings into question the economic stability of those tribes that have gaming operations," said state Rep. Derrick Lente, a Democrat and tribal member from the Sandia Pueblo, which has shuttered its casino on the outskirts of Albuquerque.

In Washington state, the Puyallup Tribe of Indians told members it had only enough money to fund benefits and services through the end of June. The Tacoma-based tribe has run two large casinos, where 85 percent of employees had been laid off or furloughed.

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While corporations or billionaires have owned casinos in places such as Las Vegas, tribes are sovereign nations operating them under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act of 1988, a law was intended to help impoverished tribes build sustainable economies.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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