VIEJAS CASINO REOPENING BALANCES ECONOMIC NEED AND PUBLIC SAFETY

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By Helen Horvath

Photo, left:  Worker sanitize chips, cards and table with UV lighting; screenshot from Viejas video

On May 18, 2020, the Viejas tribe took the bold leadership step of reopening Viejas Casino & Resort in collaboration with other tribal nations in San Diego in advance of the Stage 3 opening recommended by California’s Governor Gavin Newsom.

 ECM visited the casino on opening day, speaking with employees, guests and a union official about their experiences and the many changes in place due to COVID-19.

Sovereign decisions

The Governor and Dr. Wilma Wooten, San Diego County’s Public Health Officer, initially asked that tribal governments not reopen casino gaming until planned Stage 2 requirements were met. However, several tribes declined to keep casinos closed, citing financial difficulties. Just like many other businesses and local governments, the tribes walk a fine line between meeting economic needs versus protecting public health and employees’ safety. Dr. Wooten later stated she recognized tribal sovereignty and agreed to work with tribes on phased reopening of casinos with new health protections rolling out, starting with Viejas.

Viejas, Sycuan, Jamul, and several other Native American tribes have published on their websites and discussed in media interviews their cooperative efforts to provide leadership and community support as they strives to create the safest possible entertainment and work environments for reopening tribal gaming enterprises.

File photo, right: One of two hotels at Viejas Casino & Resort

Tribal governments maintain sovereignty over tribal lands through treaties with the federal government. Recognized tribes are able to self-govern without the United States local, state, or federal governments imposing their will, in most instances. This requires cooperation between tribes and outside agencies. Without gaming facilities, hotels, and other business ventures, tribes would not be able to sustain critical services such as healthcare, tribal security, fire, education, family services, and other essential community services that are typically paid for by the tribal governments.  Nor would tribes be able to rehire current employees furloughed or laid off to help revive the sagging local and tribal economies. The shut-down since mid-March has further impacted non-tribal economies and companies that rely on tribes to sustain their businesses, from food suppliers to florists to other services.

The pandemic has left tribal and non-tribal local governments locally and nationally working to fulfill needs within their communities and fund vital services as they strive to balance public health and welfare of tribal members and visitors against tribal communities’ needs for viable income. For many, though not all local tribes, leaders made the bold decision to invest in major health and safety upgrades and welcome back visitors to their casinos and hotels – but with major changes in place.

Safety – It is the new normal

Social media has been abuzz with some individuals posting fears over going to social or entertainment venues due to COVID-19.  Prior to opening on May 18, 2020 Viejas Casino had sent out an email to all past guests describing the upgraded sanitation practices, which include stopping their formerly 24 hour operation to close from 3-7 a.m to clean utilizing UVC Lights to disinfect Viejas Casino.  This disinfecting method stops germs by damaging the cells within each germ.  UVC Light prevents COVID-19 from infecting people and replicating the virus and bacteria (Source Tru-D Smart UVC).  The benefit is that UVC Light disinfects without chemicals and overall human error.

Photo, right: Hand sanitizers are widely available in the casino.

A spouse of a Viejas union employee who spoke to ECM on condition of anonymity expressed concerns about returning to work.  She expressed serious concerns for employees with underlying health risks such as asthma and diabetes, those most vulnerable to COVID-19.  She feared her husband might become ill upon reentry into Viejas employment.  After unsuccessfully attempting to obtain a doctor’s note to avoid having to return to work, the employee reported to work on May 18, 2020.

Fortunately, after seeing the extensive health precautions taken, the worker states that he feels satisfied with the overall safety protocols of the Casino.

This reporter spoke to a representative of the Union who provided an unofficial response regarding the union’s safety concerns for casino employees. These included social distancing, long lines in front of the casino with the potential for failure of social distancing requirements, the need to follow safety protocols, and the need to audit safety procedures continuously while balancing the need for employees to earn income.  The union will be monitoring the safety protocols and safety audits.

ECM visits Viejas Casino on opening day

On May 18,  this reporter drove to Viejas Casino and observed exceptionally long and socially distanced lines in the front and back of the casino, with hundreds turning out to enjoy opening day. Security personnel were managing the entry to the casino based upon the planned maximum occupancy.

Several guests spoke about their experiences as they were leaving. One couple stated that they were able to play and have dinner.  They were simply excited to leave their home and stated that they enjoyed their stay. The couple did not mind the social distancing and other safety requirements.  Another guest stated that she enjoyed winning and then losing $400.  She was ready to play some more at another date.  Another man and his son complained about the wait and that there were not enough tables to play cards.  The photograph was taken inside the casino in the card area.  The card tables were socially distanced with three players per table and every other table available to play cards. 

In the card playing area, the dealers wore face masks and some wore gloves.  At the tables, the dealers continually used disinfectant when handling the cards.  This was an increased disinfecting method to provide safety for players and employees. 

Viejas Tribal Security used a non-touch thermometer as they took the temperature of each guest entering the facility. If a guest’s temperature was too high or refused to have their temperature taken, the guest was not admitted.  This included guests with room reservations at the hotels that have reopened.  The information was posted outside of the Casino with warnings about non-entry for those who could not meet the temperature or health status requirements.

The Viejas Buffet was open with sufficient staffing, but it’s no longer self-serve. The staff was happy to explain that the restaurant protocols had changed significantly. The dining staff stated that the buffet had turned into a sit-down eatery. The food was the same, yet, guest would select their buffet food from a disposable menu. The server now delivers selections to the table instead of the guest walking up to the buffet line.

Restaurants such as Ginger Noodle were offering din- in eating options both inside the restaurant and on the patio with social distancing enforced.  According to Viejas’ website, the majority of the restaurants are open. 

 Many of the bars were open for drink service, yet not for sit down consumption. (Bars elsewhere in the state remain closed, subject to California restrictions that don’t apply on tribal lands.) Floors are marked with social distancing as recommended in areas of the Casino. 

One of the fears of many potential guests is the possibility of contracting COVID-19 by entering the casino. Throughout the casino were reminders describing the Casino management policies to ensure customer and employee safety.  Failure to adhere to the mandatory requirements could potentially cause guests to be asked to leave.

The signage encourages guests to follow social distancing to reduce potential of virus transmission.  The key message was and continues to be social distancing and safety. Taking care of oneself is also taking care of the community at large; safety for all through common sense consideration. 

In the past, every gaming machine in Viejas would have been operational. Now, Viejas had taken social distancing precautions by not operating some of the machines.  The staff frequently cleaned gaming machines, wearing masks and gloves while keeping social distancing. 

 This reporter spoke with several onsite casino employees regarding safety and measures taken to protect employees and guests.  Employees were provided protective equipment that included masks, gloves, and face shields.  In one area of the casino, employees wore medical grade face shields.  These employees would continually disinfect surfaces in their work area.  Each time a guest left their area, the employee would again disinfect surfaces in their workspace. (Photo, left: Workers sanitize slot machines; screenshot from Viejas video via Facebook)

One employee mentioned responsibilities in housekeeping that led to a discussion of room cleaning standards and what was different upon returning to the Casino.  She asked that her name not be used, yet, she proudly spoke about the increased cleaning standards to include specific disinfecting protocols.  She also mentioned that the staff had received safety training prior to opening.

The overall comments of the various employees were that they were happy to be back at work.  Employees who spoke to this reporter asked to remain anonymous; yet, each one was pleased with the safety protocols. 

Several Casino employees mentioned that services were not fully operational at Viejas.  Some guests may have previously used the valet service at Viejas Casino.  However, the valet service is not currently available because of employee and guest social distancing and safety concerns.  Guests must self-park.  In addition, due to social distancing, the Bingo hall is currently closed until further notice. 

The fine line between health safety and earning income – the proverbial question.

As a community or as an individual, we can sit back and wait for the possibility of contracting COVID-19 or we can responsibly choose to live our lives with key safety precautions of masks, gloves and face shields as appropriate.  Different individuals can make different choices. Many have experienced difficulty with sheltering in place directives due to mental health ramifications creating potential anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions such as agoraphobia (avoidance of places or situations that make you fearful or uncomfortable). These mental health issues can also stem from lack of income, food insecurities, and other life experiences within this pandemic. So for some, seeking relief from these pressures at venues such as a casino may be key for their mental health, while for others, maintaining isolation may provide them peace of mind.

All businesses and governments inside and outside of tribal governments are experiencing economic loss.  The State of California now has a budget deficit due to COVID 19 along with other cities and counties. Income tax revenues will be down along with business tax revenues. According to a new San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) report, unemployment countywide is now a staggering 30.1% - far higher than the national average.   

 Imagine if the Local, State or Federal government was unable to generate revenue to pay for basic services, where would we be?  It is no different for the tribal governments as sovereign nations. Tribal governments also require ongoing funding sources in order to sustain tribal programs and services, and the primary revenue sources for many local tribes are gaming operations and related ventures such as hotel resorts.

On the heels of the tribes opening casinos, the San Diego Board of Supervisors, in a 4-1 vote, approved the accelerated opening of San Diego in two moves. Effective immediately, retailers and dine-in restaurants can reopen with social distancing and health protocols in place, an action approved by the state. The county has also asked the state to allow a pilot program that would open some phase-3 businesses such as gyms and hairdressers, though thus far, the state has not approved that request.

Supervisor Jim Desmond, in a late night May 19 KUSI interview, discussed some of his primary concerns of active community mental health concerns and loss of income for county residents with the shelter in place order.    

Only time will tell if the reopening of businesses approved by the Board of Supervisors and also the tribal governments will result in further cases of COVID-19, or if the growth curve for new cases will continue to flatten.

East County Magazine gratefully acknowledges the Facebook Journalism Project for its COVID-19 Relief Fund grant to support our local news reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Learn more: #FacebookJournalismProject and  https://www.facebook.com/fbjournalismproject/

Dr. Helen Horvath is a published author, psychologist, and organizational development consultant.  As a speaker, she has been invited to speak at the American Psychological Association Annual Conference, Society of Industrial and Organizational Psychology, and other key professional organizations.  Dr. Horvath is a published author on a variety of psychology and business related topics.  She is a former marriage and family therapist and published a relationship book entitled “Put a Period to IT: When Divorce is the Option”.


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