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Viejas Casino reopens after two-month closure due to coronavirus; others to follow suit

Viejas Casino and Resort in Alpine, Calif., closed for two months because of the coronavirus outbreak, reopened Monday with new safety measures in place.
(Misha Bruk)

A lined formed down the block as the casino resumed operations

They may have been rolling the dice with their health, but hundreds of people eager to play slot machines and card games returned to Viejas Casino and Resort in San Diego County on Monday as the gaming venue reopened with new safety guidelines.

“I’m a religious person,” said Hugh Henson of El Cajon as he entered the Alpine casino. “I believe when my number comes, my number comes.”

Henson said he used to live on the Viejas reservation and had gotten up at 5:30 a.m. that day to catch a bus to Viejas. He dressed up for the occasion in a nice shirt and straw hat. By the time he arrived, a line of visitors had already made it inside.

Tribes in San Diego County volunteered to shut down casino operations on March 20 shortly after county health officials implemented a number of safety measures to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, including the closure of all bars and limiting restaurants to takeout only.

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While county residents still are being sent to hospitals and are dying of COVID-19 — the death toll was 209 as of Sunday —the shutdowns and other measures have been credited with keeping the spread to a level that can be managed by the healthcare system.

Some businesses and activities have been allowed to return, but with restrictions. Casinos were not included on the state’s list of operations that could reopen, but tribes in the county are reopening this week, arguing they have the right as sovereign nations.

Viejas is the first to reopen, with Sycuan Casino and Resort in El Cajon scheduled for Wednesday and Valley View Casino and Resort in Valley Center scheduled for Friday.

Katie Bernard was among the gamers eager to return to Viejas Casino, which she called home. She said she had been counting the days since she heard the casino would reopen and has no fear of catching the coronavirus.

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“If you’re healthy, you’re fine,” she said. “I’m ready to spend some of that stimulus.”

She and other people donned face coverings as they prepared to enter the casino. Strips of red tape spaced six feet apart could be seen leading to the casino doors — a reminder to socially distance. Before coming inside, people in uniform checked everyone’s temperature and asked individuals if they had any flu- or cold-like symptoms.

The Viejas Casino and Resort website has a video promoting its use of ultraviolet light technology to clean all surfaces in the gaming area, shuttles and other places.

By about 9:30 a.m., the four-story parking garage at Viejas had empty spaces only on the top deck.

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Raul Fierro of Orange County was among the guests who had booked a room for him and his family at the casino’s hotel.

“We just needed a break, to get out, so we figured the first day would be the cleanest, safest day to go,” he said. “We held to quarantine to a T for two months. We’re making it like a mini-vacay.”

El Cajon resident Dean Burton, 59, said he was on a winning streak at Viejas when the virus hit, so he made plans to return as soon as he heard of the reopening.

“I wanted to go see that same machine to see if it would give me any more,” he said as he left the casino. “Today, it didn’t work out.”

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Burton said he felt the casino was safe and clean inside, and he plans to return regularly.

Tribal leaders had told Gov. Gavin Newsom of their intention to reopen casinos last week. Newsom said he recognized their sovereign right, but also had asked them to remain closed in the spirit of “sovereign-to-sovereign engagement” until surrounding jurisdictions had entered the next reopening phase, which would include casinos.

San Diego County officials had opposed the casino’s plans to reopen, but by late last week said they recognized tribal nations’ sovereign rights and would not stand in their way.

Warth and Winkley write for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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