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Despite Whitmer stay-at-home order, Michigan tribes to reopen casinos

In a few days, Michiganders will be able to reserve hotel rooms, eat meals and play the slot machines at the state’s tribal casinos.

Citing crippling financial losses in their communities, at least four Michigan tribal governments plan to reopen casinos between Friday and Monday, two weeks before the state’s stay-at-home order ends, and a fifth will open on June 8. This announcement comes only a few weeks after tribal governments decided against an early May 16 opening, thus avoiding a potential conflict with Michigan Gov. Whitmer.

This time, however, while Whitmer has extended stay-at-home guidelines through June 12, tribal governments are officially moving forward to reopen their casino businesses, some as early as Friday. As federally-recognized sovereign nations, they are not required to follow state protocol. 

In Mount Pleasant, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe will open the Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort and Saganing Eagles Landing Casino and Hotel to invited guests at 10 am. Friday and then to the public on Monday.

"We’re following CDC standards and standards from the National Indian Gaming Commission,” tribal spokesperson Frank Cloutier told Bridge. “We’ve taken steps to ensure that we have social distancing, and we’ll be doing everything we possibly can.” 

The decision to open casinos largely comes from a need to continue providing education, health care and economic resources to more than 50,000 members of Michigan’s 12 federally-recognized tribes. Casino revenue is a main driver of tribal government operations and their closings have devastated Native American communities throughout the state.

“I hope that the governor would understand that although we respect what she is doing and applaud her for her efforts so far, we feel it is absolutely necessary to re-engage the market,” Cloutier said.

He said the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe notified Whitmer of its decision and stressed that the tribes have “every right” to open. 

“We have essential services that we provide to our membership, and casinos help fund that. If we are to continue with police, child and family services and elder care, we need to do what is best for us,” he added.

In response to the openings, Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown said: 

“We encourage the tribes to reopen in a manner consistent with the MI Safe Start Plan. Because the tribes are independent sovereigns in the state of Michigan, the state cannot directly prohibit a tribe from choosing to open its casino doors. However, we continue to work with tribal leaders to share information about safety protocols to provide the maximum protection possible for Michigan residents.”

When announcing the June 1 opening of the Firekeepers Casino and Hotel, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi, located in the town of Fulton near Kalamazoo, cited the improvement of coronavirus pandemic conditions. 

“We believe the state’s efforts to flatten the curve are working and have worked. We have positioned ourselves to safely open and welcome our guests’ return,” said chairperson Jamie Stuck. “COVID-19 has impacted all aspects of everyday life and, as such, the casinos will operate under a ‘new normal.’” 

To keep 1,800 employees and their guests safe, casino procedures will include: 

  • Limiting the number of people inside
  • Mandating masks
  • Checking temperatures before entrance and denying entry to those with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above as per CDC guidelines
  • Requiring staff to wear PPE, including masks and gloves
  • Enforcing social distancing guidelines including line markers by cashier stations and front desks and drastic reductions in the number of available slot machines and table games on the casino floor
  • Banning smoking 
  • Cleaning procedures for game chips and other common touch points, hand sanitizer for staff and guests
  • Reducing hotel and restaurant services and capacity 

Firekeepers Casino’s marketing vice president Jim Wise told Bridge that some of the proposed guidelines, specifically the prohibition of smoking and enforcement of mask-wearing, have received mixed reactions on social media.

“For some people, our standards are too rigid. For others, our standards are too loose,” he said. “A lot of people haven’t gone for the ’no smoking’. We just said, you know what, we think we need to do this. Same thing with the masks.” 

For tribal casinos in the Upper Peninsula, the June 1 reopening date is actually later than other businesses. 

The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians’ Kewadin Casinos consortium intends to reopen 9 a.m. Monday, with 480 staffers working in the meantime to support “needed services to the membership and the programs that support membership services.” 

In a Facebook post, Bay Mills Indian Community Chairman Bryan Newland said the government is “shooting for a June 1st reopening” but will confirm later this week. Like Firekeepers, capacity will be limited with non-smoking and sanitizing guidelines in place. 

“We will offer bar service, machine gaming, an RV park and a lot of smiles,” he said. 

After weekly communication with Whitmer’s office and deliberations within tribal government, the Gun Lake Tribe in Shelbyville between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo announced an opening date of June 8. 

Under the tribe’s “Play It Safe” initiative, the casino will be open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily and closed for sanitation in the afternoon and evening. Only those 21 or older with a mask will be admitted.

"The tribes are moving toward reopening because we have to do what's in our best interest,” Gun Lake spokesperson James Nye said. “Tribal leadership has a goal and mission to provide for the health and welfare of the tribal citizens. It was a well-reasoned and deliberate process to arrive at these decisions." 

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