BATTLE OF THE BUG

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COVID-19 flu bug creates extreme concerns for tribal membership

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

After months of postponed opening dates, the Puyallup tribe has announced that its new Emerald Queen Casino will open on Monday, June 8. Tribal leaders already re-opened the Fife EQC on May 18 despite that Pierce County remains in Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start Plan, which allows for only essential businesses to be open and no gatherings. 

The decision to finally open the new casino, which will replace the Tacoma I-5 casino, comes as other area tribes are also re-opening their casinos with precautions like limiting the number of patrons and requiring protective face coverings. It will remain to be seen how many people put COVID-19 worries aside and attend the new EQC. From reports that the Tacoma Weekly is receiving, crowds at the Fife EQC are being let in such that people are practically on top of each other, with no real effort to ensure masks are being worn. 

On Monday, June 1, the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health reported eight new cases of COVID-19 in the county, then that number jumped to 22 cases on Wednesday and 21 on Thursday, the highest in weeks. Whether people are being exposed at the casino hasn’t been addressed, but it’s safe to say that allowing people to gather tightly in closed quarters with feeble enforcement of protections adds fuel to the COVID fire.

According to a news release posted on the tribe’s website, the new $450 million, 310,000-square-foot casino will open at 9 a.m. with a prayer and opening ceremony for tribal members only, then at noon for the general public. The grand opening looks to be a rather solemn affair, with no showy ribbon cutting or local dignitaries in attendance as has been tradition when the tribe held openings for other of its ventures. The casino will open before the adjoining 12-story, 170 room hotel is finished, scheduled to be completed this summer, as stated in the release. Still, EQC management and tribal council have high expectations for a big turnout, with shuttle service being offered from the Fife EQC in order to “mitigate potential traffic issues.” 

The casino opening comes just two days after the primary elections for tribal council on June 6. With tribal members invited to gather in the new casino, this would make a prime opportunity for them to ask some pertinent questions of their electeds. What is the protocol if an employee tests positive for COVID-19? If a customer who tests positive for COVID-19 visits the casino, is there a plan in place to notify every customer that they could possibly have been exposed? Is testing for employees happening immediately and regularly? How will employees be protected overall? 

PROTECTING CASINO WORKERS

Employee protections is an important issue among those in the service industry. In Las Vegas, members of Culinary Union Local 226 have been holding car caravan events on the Las Vegas strip to make their voices heard. As casinos there prepared to reopen this month, the union is demanding full transparency; that these properties share their “full reopening plans and implement strong worker and visitor protections.” 

For tribal casinos, in order to open in keeping with National Indian Gaming Commission (NIGC) requirements, any that seek to re-open must pass a 22-question preliminary assessment that NIGC has issued. This is being done to ensure that casino operations are conducted “in a manner that adequately protects the environment and the public health and safety, pursuant to the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act,” as stated in the assessment.

Among the assessment’s provisions is to take into account any local, county or state restrictions that are still in affect. While such restrictions don’t apply to tribal gaming facilities, the NIGC assessment states that local conditions surrounding COVID-19 should assist in determining whether any tribe’s gaming operations should re-open. With Pierce County not yet authorized to begin Phase 2 of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start Plan, the Emerald Queen Casino is still in the midst of an area under specific restrictions that allow only for essential businesses to be open. 

The assessment also asks whether protocols are in place if staff or patrons report or display COVID-19 symptoms. The Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health lists specific guidelines to employers and employees concerning maintaining safety for everyone, including customers. Anyone with a persistent cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, loss of taste or smell or who has had close contact with someone with COVID-19 is advised to stay home. The department recommends that businesses designate a COVID-19 safety lead to monitor employee health and enforce the business’ safety plan. Contact between employees and customers should be limited, with plexiglass barriers installed wherever possible. 

The department also recommends that employees use separate entrances to the building and be on staggered schedules to reduce the number of people in the same space. Employees that show any signs of COVID-19 are to be placed in a private room away from others and the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health should be notified right away. The Centers for Disease Control advises to isolate the area where the employee worked and to clean it thoroughly. 

For customers, a time limit should be placed on how long they stay, and a visitor log should be kept with names, phone numbers and email addresses so that they can be contacted should the business encounter a customer or employee that tests positive. 

‘THIS CASINO IS FILTHY’

One major issue that EQC casino management will have to face is the general level of cleanliness, or lack of it. This has been one of the main complaints from EQC patrons over the years. In a Sept. 7, 2019 review at Yelp.com, Blake G. wrote: “This casino is filthy. I don’t know which casino I’m more repulsed by – Flamingo Vegas or EQC Tacoma.” 

Another concern is how thick the EQC is with cigarette smoke. How is it possible to smoke while at the same time wearing the required face protection? It’s not. Smokers have to raise or lower their mask and thus defeat its purpose. Emmy-award winning journalist and physician Dr. Mallika Marshall told CBS News that whenever someone smokes or vapes, they’re breathing out respiratory droplets. “So if you’re near someone who is smoking and you can smell the smoke, and that person is sick with COVID-19, you’re at risk of getting sick yourself,” she said. 

Reviews at Yelp.com also address this problem. “I get it. Casinos can be smoky, but this place is INSANELY smoky. Not just the kind of smoky where you leave and your clothes and hair smell. The kind that literally makes you sick,” wrote Laura H., Feb. 15, 2020. And on Nov. 11, 2019, T.C. wrote: “If you are a non-smoker, I recommend you stay clear of this place. They have absolutely zero ventilation and low ceilings, a perfect formula for secondhand smoke exposure which causes numerous health problems.”

The EQC has long had a bad reputation for being a scummy sort of place. A good portion of its clientele comes straight off the street – the homeless, street people and drug addicts that legitimate casino patrons see as a big turn-off and something that security does little or nothing to keep in check.

As Helen B. posted at Yelp.com on Nov. 11, 2019: “It seems the casino prefers the indigent and useless, corrupt and criminal, the depraved and nasty drunk and dirty druggie over the normal and decent occasional recreational gambler. Why?” 

Those who live on the street generally lack personal hygiene, as they have limited access to bathe themselves regularly or wash their hands and clothes. This goes against everything that health authorities say about how COVID-19 is spread, the number one way being unwashed hands. Unless a casino worker is standing next to every slot machine ready to wipe it down the minute players walk away, it’s like a game of roulette for the next person, not knowing what the player before had on his or her hands. This is how a virus is spread – it’s an invisible enemy that you don’t know is around you until you get it. 

BAD DECISIONS KEEP COMING

Opening the new casino at this time of economic insecurity for the majority of Americans reveals a certain absence of concern on the part of tribal leadership for the well being of not only public health, but for the local economy. Tribal members have gone to their council to express concerns about opening the casinos and the risks of COVID-19, but have not been taken seriously. These members know that if a second wave of the virus takes off, it will affect more than the tribe’s casinos. Another mandatory shutdown would be terrible for people locally and statewide, in addition to damaging our economy even further. 

The millions of dollars spent playing slot machines are, in effect, already being diverted from the broader community and small businesses that really need help right now. Independently owned restaurants are just one example, wondering how to pay the bills, forced to layoff employees and some facing imminent closure. 

The current record number of Washingtonians on unemployment shows a vast amount of people out of work, with the state helping to take care of their basic needs. For some people, the temptation to gamble is an addiction that can only be fed when a way to gamble is provided to them. Now, the opportunity to gamble their money away with no chance of getting it back only feeds into the cycle of instability, leaving those tempted to try winning a big casino payout out in the cold with empty pockets. 

This isn’t stopping EQC management from packing them in, though. In fact, word has it that management is allegedly falsifying the maximum occupancy numbers and has gone so far as to take down the maximum occupancy signs inside the casino to get them out of public view. Management is said to be allowing up to 3,800 people inside at one time, with the Fife EQC having only 2,100 slot machines for them to use. Initially, tribal press statements said that capacity would be limited to 30 percent, which adds up to just around 700 people that should be inside the casino at one time. 

Whenever the tribal membership expresses concern about their tribe’s financial footing during this era of the coronavirus, the tribal council points to the casino as the solution. This is because the council grew comfortable and complacent with casino windfalls bringing in huge amounts of money to dole out. For years, per-capita checks were issued to the membership without fail, and council members basked in the glow of how they were taking such good care of everyone. The council loved it when they could write a fat check for a charity, the Seattle Seahawks or Mariners, and revel in the lauds of praise. 

Times have taken a drastic turn, though, and past bad decisions by the council are coming home to roost. With no real financial safety net built up during the prosperous times, and a weak effort to diversify the tribe’s economic base, the council is now faced with the problem of maintaining basic services and programs. Per-capitas are already being reduced for the first time in the tribe’s history, now being based on how well the casinos and other tribal businesses perform.

As a sovereign nation, Puyallup tribal leaders have always held this status up as a maverick standard of independence. But with the coronavirus affecting everyone equally and presenting common hurdles and roadblocks to go on with life, and business, as usual, tribal self-sufficiency is showing its weak spots. Change is in the air, and it is hitting the Puyallup tribe right where it hurts the most – in the pocketbook. If tribal leadership doesn’t start thinking outside the box, and quickly, this sovereign nation is destined to become a welfare state. 

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