PANDEMIC PIERCE COUNTY

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Governor’s ban on large gatherings could bring the Grim Reaper to local casinos

By Matt Nagle

matt@tacomaweekly.com

On the same day that the World Health Organization declared pandemic status for the coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee announced our state’s most sweeping move yet to try and contain the virus, also known as COVID-19. At a Wednesday press conference, he officially declared a ban on certain public gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties through the end of this month. 

The prohibition affects gatherings for social, recreational, spiritual and other matters including, but not limited to, community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based and sporting events. Parades, concerts, festivals, conventions, fundraisers and similar activities of that dimension are prohibited as well.

“It is very highly likely that it will be extended beyond March,” Inslee said, and likely include other counties. He explained that these three counties currently under prohibition were chosen because they are experiencing significant community transmission and significant outbreaks and they are large population centers. 

Inslee has also asked all school districts to immediately begin contingency plans for potential school closures in the next several days.

“The good news is that our children are relatively – relatively – free of serious disease associated with this,” Inslee said, “but the best science tells us that they still have the ability of transmitting disease to other people they come into contact with. So we’re giving intense thought about what we can do in regard to our children.”

Inslee reiterated that COVID-19 “is not just your ordinary flu. This is a virus that the experts tell us is at least 10 times more potentially fatal than the flu. This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat. We have already lost 24 of our citizens, with 268 presumptive cases and hundreds, if not thousands, more who we know are on our streets who may not even know they have the virus.” 

Every day, Americans wake up to something new concerning this mysterious virus that’s taking the world by storm. Local traffic sometimes even seems to be lighter than usual, as workers and students stay home to avoid becoming infected.

In Tacoma, one City of Tacoma employee tested positive for COVID-19 this week. Mayor Victoria Woodards, after changing her annual State of the City address from a public gathering to virtual presentation, said in a news release that the city is evaluating city-sponsored events for March. So far, the South Sound Sustainability Expo (March 14) and T-Town City Services Expo (March 28) are being rescheduled. 

“I recognize that this is a stressful time for many, and I want to reassure our community that their health, as well as the health of our employees at the City of Tacoma, remain a top priority,” Woodards stated. “The City proactively plans for a wide range of incidents and scenarios to ensure continuity of services for customers and community members, and we are taking thoughtful steps to stop the spread of this virus as we continue to coordinate with our local, state and federal partners.

“As we navigate as a community – and as a nation – through this difficult time, it is more important than ever to care for ourselves as well as one another. Facts – not fear – should drive all of our actions.”

As a precaution, the city closed senior centers in Tacoma until at least March 31. “While there are currently no confirmed cases of coronavirus (COVID-19) at either the Beacon (415 S. 13th St.) or Lighthouse (5016 A St.) Activity Centers, due to the increased health risk from COVID-19 to people over the age of 60, the city has determined that it would be in the best interest of senior participants to close the centers,” as stated on the city’s Facebook page.

Inslee has also issued a message to state businesses and workers. Inslee has convened a state COVID-19 Economic Retention and Recovery Taskforce, which rapidly compiled a List of Resources for Businesses and Workers Impacted by COVID-19, which can be found at www.governor.wa.gov/coronavirus-resource-list-businesses-and-workersand is regularly updated. These resources include financial assistance such as certain tax filing extensions, payment plans and penalty waivers. It includes export assistance, to help identify alternative markets, obtain capital advances and defray the cost of trade promotion and training activities. It includes insurance assistance to help answer questions about insurance coverage related to COVID-19. And it includes employer and worker assistance to help keep highly-trained employees on the job, and provide benefits to workers who need to take time off from work due to serious illness or to care for a family member with a serious health condition. 

“If COVID-19 causes mass employment disruption or closures, our state Employment Security Department (ESD) can respond with Rapid Response services and funding to help impacted workers connect with unemployment benefits, retraining and other important social services,” the governor said. 

In Pierce County, presumed positive cases now stand at 14. More than half of these are women, ranging from 20-80 years old, and one child under 10. According to the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, peopleare more likely to get sick if they have close contact with someone who has COVID-19. The department is still urging everyone to take safety precautions: 

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Use a tissue or your elbow to cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough. Throw used tissues in the trash and wash your hands.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces.
  • Stay home and away from others when you’re sick.

Coronavirus is a group of viruses that includes the common cold. If you’ve ever had a runny nose, cough or sore throat, you’ve likely had a form of coronavirus. Coronaviruses can cause mild illness, like a cold, or severe illness, like pneumonia. Most people with COVID-19 have mild symptoms.

Coronaviruses often spread through coughs and sneezes, close personal contact and touching your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands.

DISEASED DISNEYLAND

Over the past weeks, the headlines have said it all: “Ireland cancels all St. Patrick’s Day parades due to coronavirus.” “NBA prepares teams to play games in empty arenas during virus outbreak.” “Stocks plunge 1,400 points after WHO declares coronavirus outbreak as pandemic.”

And that’s just a small sampling. Across Washington State, the picture is equally grim. ““Schools closing after positive coronavirus tests.” “UW Medicine hospitals suspend patient visits during coronavirus threat.” “What if coronavirus hits homeless shelters?”

And it goes on and on…

It seems that the new catchphrase these days is “social distancing” – keeping away from others to the point that some are choosing to not even leave their house. But what of places where social distancing is impossible, places where “packing them in” is the whole point? One example that stands out: casinos.

At casinos, it’s all about touching things in a contained environment where disinfecting slot machines after every use is pretty much impossible. 

At casinos, it’s all about bringing in as many customers as possible and, as is the case at the Emerald Queen Casino for instance, the flow goes on 24 hours a day. And it’s all about touching things there as well – buttons on slot machines, playing cards, chips, tables, chairs, etc. It would be impossible to wipe down machines after every use and, coupled with the poor air circulation there, the EQC is like a petri dish for any virus. It’s just like being on a cruise ship where everything is in a contained environment – and, ironically, the EQC is named after a boat. 

The EQC already has a terrible reputation for cleanliness. It’s not uncommon for some players to urinate or defecate right where they’re sitting at their chosen slot machine because they don’t want to risk someone else taking that machine. The bathrooms themselves can be exceptionally filthy, with used hypodermic needles on the floor or visible in trashcans and human waste in places where it shouldn’t be. 

Given that the casino caters to customers of all types, it has long been a haven for street people who don’t have access to personal hygiene options like frequent hand washing, which health experts say is key to preventing COVID-19 from spreading. The EQC is basically a diseased Disneyland for gamblers.

Those who still want to have a night out gambling should consider BJ’s Bingo in Fife, noted for being a clean place more easily sanitized and with much smaller crowds than the big casinos.   

Then there’s the risk of food contamination. This week, MGM Resorts in Las Vegas temporarily closed buffets at seven of their resorts amid the coronavirus outbreak. Some other casinos and attractions followed suit.

The financial impact of COVID-19 is only just beginning, but locally it looks likely to have a serious impact on the Puyallup tribe and its membership of more than 6,000 people. Under the tribe’s per-capita program, $2,000 a month is paid out to every single tribal member. That’s approximately $12,000,000 a month – or $400,000 a day – needed to meet the per-cap cost and all of it comes from the EQC. 

Tribal members rely on this money for everything from paying the rent to buying food for the table. They would be the hardest hit should the EQC be forced to close for even one day because the tribal council has no back-up plan. There is no emergency fund. Many tribal members live paycheck to paycheck like the rest of us and were the EQC’s business to be interrupted, that paycheck would not be showing up in the mail.

This recent photo of the Tacoma EQC shows what might be the wave of the future – empty casinos. 

What’s more is that the tribe’s brand new EQC still sits vacant with no announced date of opening and with a large workforce on hold and not being paid. Construction work appears to have stopped, with the towering crane now gone and the attached hotel remaining unfinished. This begs the question of just how financially strapped the tribe really is. 

In December, EQC general manager Frank Wright stated on a live Q13 news cast that the casino was to be open within days, touting many of the new EQC’s amenities including boasting that it would have more bathroom stalls than any other casino in America. Wright, excited about the opening of thecasino, purchased two 2020 production line Corvettes, mentioned to the Tacoma Weekly by a friend of his. Wright may have started celebrating a bit too early seeing as the casino is still not open. The COVID-19 pandemic could be a major tragedy for EQC management.

Not long after Wright’s announcement, the opening date was moved to March, which looks highly unlikely, but even if it did, who would attend? The governor’s just-announced prohibition of large gatherings would effectively keep people away. Even though the tribe is a sovereign nation and outside the jurisdiction of the state, it may choose to not abide by the governor’s order and keep the casino open, but that doesn’t mean the general public will go there. 

The EQC has three locations – one in Fife, the existing location in Tacoma and what was to be the grand opening of the new EQC in Tacoma. Each EQC location has a high volume of transient patrons, adding to the problem of controlling viral outbreaks, as transients are more likely to spread viruses due to lack of hygiene and being tested. 

Tribal leaders are under intense pressure from banks to get the facility open, including Bank of America, which did not return our emails. Nevertheless, rumor has it that the bank is extremely nervous, as Bank of America is the lead financer on this casino and should take some responsibility for the poor planning that has occurred in completing the casino. Bank of America customers may be wise to think about moving their funds to a new bank since this pandemic could hurt banks that have issued very large loans. 

Between the tribe’s struggling finances, the coronavirus and their multi-million dollar incomplete casino project at a standstill, the perfect storm is churning to potentially create some real problems for the tribe. And this comes at a time when the state legislators just passed the sports betting bill that restricts placing bets at tribal casinos only where bettors have to be physically present. 

Could the coronavirus be the Grim Reaper to take out casinos for good? Only time will tell. The U.S. population is already shying away from big public gatherings in light of mass shootings and now the chance to get a serious virus. The airlines, cruise industry, mega amusement parks, massive concerts and more could well be on the brink of becoming obsolete as more and more people choose to stay home where this is at least some semblance of safety from dangers that have become the new reality. 

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