Pierce County COVID-19 numbers leap as the Emerald Queen Casino invites you in to gamble your life away
By John Weymer
Once Washington State entered Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan on June 5, positive tests for COVID-19 began to rise back up to numbers not seen since April.
“I am no longer in a hopeful place. Because the health of our community is my top priority, I am withdrawing my recommendation for Pierce County to apply for an expanded Phase 2,” Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department Director Anthony Chen said this week. “I talked with several of our board members, including our Board of Health chair and vice chair, and they agree this is the right call for our situation right now.”
What is causing Pierce County to revert back to higher case numbers? Some have suggested that recent public protests and street marches have contributed to the coronavirus surge, as the national tally of new cases has reached an all-time high. However, that does not appear to be the case. The biggest protests locally have occurred in Seattle, but according to Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer of Public Health – Seattle & King County, “Neither here in King County, or elsewhere in the county, where health care authorities are looking, have we been able to document that or find strong evidence.”
Since the coronavirus is spread primarily among people who are in close contact indoors with one another, it stands to reason that the enclosed environment of the Emerald Queen Casino is contributing to Pierce County’s increased case load.
For next week’s issue, the Tacoma Weekly is sending questions to tribal leadership about this and other pressing matters, and we’re giving them a week to respond. Tribal council member Sylvia Miller has already stated that the Tacoma Weekly is “hurting” the community by publishing recent hard-hitting stories about the council’s, and EQC management’s, activities, but tribal members and everyone who lives and works in Pierce County are entitled to know the truth of what is going on – that the EQC is nothing more than a super-spreader of COVID-19 and the populace is being lied to about it.
There is nowhere else that people can gather in the manner the EQC offers. Nothing else like it is open at this point – no movie theaters, indoor concerts, conventions or any such events are happening. EQC management has even boasted that the casino is seeing record business, which brings into question the number of patrons being admitted and just how thoroughly the casino’s safety measures are being enforced overall.
Under our state’s Phase 2 requirements, restaurants can serve only at 50 percent capacity. With the EQC café, restaurant, deli and sports bar open for business, the casino should be following these orders. However, being a sovereign nation, the Puyallup tribe does not have to allow health inspectors into the casino to check compliance, nor has the tribal council or EQC management invited them in good faith.
The National Indian Gaming Commission requires tribes to work with health officials and gaming authorities regarding reopening casinos and that casino policies must be approved before opening. The Center for Disease Control has also issued guidance for tribes. According to the CDC, casinos present the highest risk of spreading COVID-19 when casino and gaming operations are open at full capacity; games that require a dealer and that allow multiple players at the same time are offered; individuals are not spaced apart while seated or standing; and sharing of gaming materials and equipment is permitted with no restrictions.
While other area casinos have postposed opening their dining facilities and are not allowing smoking or drinking inside the facility, the EQC has taken the opposite route. Unlike other casinos, table games at the EQC are back open as well, presenting more opportunity for the virus to spread among players where it’s impossible to be six feet apart, passing cards and chips back and forth with bare hands.
CNN reported this week that Atlantic City casinos have reopened but at 25 percent customer capacity. No eating, drinking or smoking are allowed, and certain slot machines have been disabled to ensure player distancing. Reopening is a dangerous game, though. Soon after indoor bar services resumed in Michigan, the governor shut it down after COVID-19 cases spiked again. You just have to do the math to understand how opening one bar or casino can put many people at risk.
REPORTING EMPLOYEE COVID CASES
EQC management is warning employees that HIPPA regulations forbid them from sharing information with other employees on whether anyone among them has the virus, instead letting employees go home to their families. According to our sources, employees were told that if they know that anyone at the casino has tested positive for COVID-19 or is sick with the virus, reporting them by name is a violation of HIPPA.
EQC employees are required by management to work six days with no call-ins allowed. The only choice is to show up sick. This is what the EQC is subjecting employees to – you can’t call in sick and if you know of someone who is sick, you can’t tell anyone about it.
Tribal members and EQC employees may not realize that OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) rules are there to protect them, too. OSHA enforces statutes and regulations to safeguard workers from health and safety hazards on the job. So, if EQC management requires employees to work with someone contagious, that is grounds for a lawsuit. The EQC is ripe for employee lawsuits right now given how employees are being treated.
EMPLOYEES ARE TESTING POSITIVE
At least one EQC employee, a Yakama tribal member, visited the Yakama reservation, which has become a hot spot for the virus. It has been reported that this employee lost several family members to the virus. The employee in question returned to work, and his fellow employees took their concerns to the casino’s Human Resources department. The employee then reported not feeling well and the HR department mandated that he take eight days off with no information on whether or not he had contracted COVID-19.
This begs the question of what is casino protocol for reporting EQC staff and tribal members who have tested positive or fallen ill from the virus? What is done with this information? Again, these are questions for tribal leadership to answer. The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department recommends that if an employee is confirmed to have COVID-19, that employee must stay home and all other employees must be notified of their potential exposure. The tribe should be adhering to this as well.
EQC management and tribal council are stooping to new lows for the almighty dollar and everyone in the state is being put in real danger because of it. COVID-19 is an invisible enemy, and all it takes is one person to spark a massive outbreak and keep all of us under the thumb of this enemy for who knows how long as we, our family and friends get sick and develop permanent health problems, or die. In the meantime, Gov. Inslee, our state senators and representatives, Pierce County Council and Tacoma City Council sit idly by and let it happen.
All of this is happening while the slogan “Play Apart Together” shines on the EQC marquee for all traffic on I-5 to see – and oxymoron of the highest order. Getting together at the EQC is what’s causing the resurgence of positive COVID-19 in the first place, interrupting the state’s slow but steady movement to “flatten the curve” as it appeared was happening last month. It’s not going to get fixed by partying together.