The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians extended the temporary closure of their five Upper Peninsula casinos until June 1, citing lingering health concerns about the coronavirus pandemic and the state’s extension of stay-at-home order that applies to many state residents.
The delay in reopening the Kewadin casinos headed off a potential conflict with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who are opposed to the early reopening of casinos because of fear that patrons could spread the coronavirus.
Kewadin informed employees late Friday that the reopenings were being pushed back two weeks, and the opening date published on Kewadin’s website was changed from May 16 to June 1.
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“We are following along with a lot of the protocols of other organizations and the state,” Kewadin Casinos CEO Allen Kerridge said Monday. “Most importantly, we talked with health services and law enforcement in the local community, and a lot of it is based on the local and state and federal information out there.”
Many Michigan tribes count on casino revenue to support government, education, and health services. The impact of these COVID-19 closures has left many tribal governments struggling to provide for their communities.
Additionally, Michigan’s tribal casinos can open without Whitmer’s approval. With a sovereign status, they can make their own decisions about tribal businesses and operations without adhering to federal or state guidelines.
Economic concerns have placed pressure on tribal leaders to consider reopening before Michigan Governor Whitmer lifts the stay-at-home order. But in making the decision to extend the closure, Kerridge cited concerns over the health and safety of casino employees and customers.
“The decision was made to look out for the safety of our employees and the safety of our community as well,” he told Bridge. He also emphasized that casino employees will continue to receive emergency pay and benefits throughout the closure.
Federal funding may have also played a role in these decisions. Sault Tribe Chairman Aaron Payment announced last week that the tribe had received over $37 million in coronavirus relief money.
Payment shared that these funds can go toward covering costs incurred during the shutdown, including “enterprise subsidies” for casinos and other tribal businesses. The funding provides an essential foundation for the tribe to continue following stay-at-home and social distancing guidelines as well as reduce barriers to need-based programs.
Regardless of opening date, coronavirus will impact casino operations and revenue for the foreseeable future Kerridge said. Even when Kewadin opens, it will be in phases with precautions in place such as no table games and resorts and restaurants drastically reducing their availability.
“The pandemic is going to affect our businesses,” Kerridge said. “We may only see a 50 percent capacity when we do open up.”
“We’re all looking forward to opening again sometime soon,” Kerridge said. “We’re all looking forward to that day, but we want to do it in a safe environment. We need to have the protection and safety in place so that people feel comfortable coming back.”