Gov. Gavin Newsom on Friday appealed to a group of Native American tribes to reconsider plans to reopen their casinos in the coming days, warning that the coronavirus pandemic poses a continuing threat to public health.
Although many tribal casinos that closed in March because of the virus remain closed at least through the end of this month, three casinos in San Diego County have notified customers that they are reopening in the next week.
The Viejas Casino & Resort is scheduled to open Monday, the Sycuan Casino Resort is set to open its doors on May 20 and Valley View Casino will welcome customers starting May 22, according to messages on their websites.
In a letter to tribal leaders, Newsom reminded them that more than 75,000 Californians have tested positive for COVID-19 in 54 of the state’s 58 counties and the numbers are increasing.
“I understand that some tribal governments are planning on reopening casinos on their lands,” Newsom wrote. “This deeply concerns me, and I urge tribal governments to reconsider and instead make those determinations based on how they align with the current local public health conditions and the statewide stage of reopening.”
The governor said he understands that partial reopening of casinos is crucial to tribes raising government revenue to take care of their communities.
“However, I cannot stress enough that the risk of COVID-19 transmission remains a serious threat for all Californians,” Newsom wrote, adding the state health officer has not authorized entertainment businesses that draw large crowds to operate.
A spokesman for the Viejas casino declined to comment.
Casino General Manager James Wild said in a posting to customers on the casino’s website that the business is taking precautions. All guests and employees will be required to wear face masks and abide by physical distancing inside and undergo a noncontact temporal scan before entry.
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“We are certainly excited to welcome you back, and upon your return you will notice multiple safety measures implemented to ensure your well-being,” Wild wrote.
The Sycuan Casino plans to reopen its property in phases, with every other slot machine turned off for a safer distance between players. Table games will be limited to a max of three players per table.
“Over the past several weeks, we have made extensive changes at our property and implemented an aggressive health and sanitation program to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect our guests and team members for our reopening,” Cody J. Martinez, chairman of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, said in a website message.
Another tribal manager declined to address the details of conversations with the governor.
“Sycuan has had and continues to have a positive relationship with the governor, and this pandemic is no exception,” said Chief Administrative Officer Adam Day in a written response to The Times. “And we always maintain the confidentiality of those government-to-government conversations, and this pandemic is no exception.”
A representative of the Valley View casino was not immediately available to comment on the governor’s letter.
The casino’s website noted the facility has been closed for eight weeks and said those visiting next week will be required to wear face masks. “The safety of our guests, our team members and our local community remain our highest priority,” the message said.
Federal law provides tribes that operate casinos with sovereignty that limits the ability of the state to dictate how they operate on Indian land.
Newsom’s letter referred to that issue in urging cooperation.
“I am not asking that tribal governments receive authorization from the state or local governments prior to moving forward with reopening or suggesting that tribal casinos remain closed indefinitely,” he wrote. “However, in the spirit of sovereign-to-sovereign engagement I respectfully request that until a surrounding or neighboring local jurisdiction has legally progressed into Stage 3, your tribal casinos remain closed.”
Casinos in other parts of the state may open in the next few weeks as tribes say they are facing financial hardships.
“For tribes, their gaming facilities are essential businesses, as they represent the only means of government revenues for healthcare, public safety, education and more,” said Jacob Mejia, a spokesman for the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, which represents several Inland Empire casinos. “They are extensions of tribal government, not corporate entities driven by stock prices. It will be up to individual tribal governments to determine the appropriate time and controls under which to reopen.”