Curfew curtailing Arizona casinos? Don’t bet on it, owners say

Experience AZ | 8 Jun |

Public spaces around the state may have been closed overnight by a statewide curfew this week – but the casinos have stayed open. After being closed for months by COVID-19, Arizona casinos had just started to reopen when Gov. Doug Ducey on Sunday imposed a statewide dusk-to-dawn curfew in response to protests over George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.

But casinos around the state said their hours are unchanged, curfew or no curfew.

Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Roe Lewis announced in a Facebook video Sunday that the order would not apply to people traveling to and from the tribe’s casinos after curfew.

“The decision was made in accordance with Gila Gaming Enterprises and Community Council for our community’s casinos to remain open as well, knowing that our community has the resources to maintain security and protection,” Lewis said in the video.

The curfew, which runs from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. every day until Monday, allows people to travel to and from work and is being loosely enforced by most police agencies. Lewis said in the video that the order is targeted at those acting lawlessly during protests, not casino patrons.

The tribe’s three casinos – Lone Butte, Wild Horse Pass and Vee Quiva – were among the first to reopen, along with Fort McDowell Casino and Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino, on May 15 after the COVID-19 stay-at-home order ended.

Talking Stick Resort, Casino Arizona, Cliff Castle Casino and Cocopah Casino opened Monday, the day after the curfew took effect, while the Pascua Yaqui Tribe’s Casino Del Sol and the Tohono O’odham Nation’s Desert Diamond casinos are set to open this week.

The reopenings were a bit of good news after pandemic-related shutdown hit casinos, and tribes, hard.

“There is no other way to say it except it’s a massive impact – negative impact,” said Alan Meister, CEO of Meister Economic Consulting, which studies the gaming industry.

Meister said that while most casinos’ revenues went to zero when everything closed, tribal governments still had costs for maintaining buildings during the closure. Opening back up, he said, is how tribal governments can start to earn back that revenue.

And it’s not just tribal governments that were hurting, but also casino employees and vendors, Meister said.

“Those secondary impacts are huge as well because that total loss of revenue at the direct level, where it’s at the casino, flows straight through to everything else. Those end up becoming huge losses,” he said.

Officials at the Arizona Department of Gaming said they have not released guidance on how tribes should operate during the weeklong curfew.

“It is within the authority of each sovereign Tribal partner to determine opening and closing times,” Max Hartgraves, a department legislative assistant, said in an emailed statement. “Additionally, the curfew allows for travel between the hours of 8 p.m. and 5 a.m. for multiple services, including traveling to or from patronizing private businesses, going to and from work, and obtaining food.”

While it did not provide curfew guidance, the department did give casinos guidance from the Arizona Department of Health Services on how to operate safely in the face of COVID-19.

Those included separating slot machines and gaming tables to allow for social distancing, wiping down games between players, providing hand sanitizer, encouraging facial coverings and more. They also included recommendations for hotel and conference center operations where needed.

Talking Stick Resort officials said one reason they waited until this week to reopen was to allow time to make changes for COVID-19.

“It was important that we took extra time to do everything possible to ensure the health and increase safety for you and our employees,” Dennis Leong, CEO and president of Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, said in a video statement.

Talking Stick’s website said guests will have their temperatures taken before entering and will be given masks if they do not have one. Plexiglas partitions have been installed at slot machines and poker tables, and “designated staff will regularly clean and sanitize slot machines, chairs” and poker chips after use.

There will be no sit-down service at Talking Stick restaurants, just grab-and-go options. Smoking is no longer allowed in the building and social distancing will be enforced in all common areas throughout the casino.

Although the health measures make the gaming experience not quite what it used to be, Meister said most tribes cannot afford to remain closed and that opening up is “part of that double-edged sword.”

“They desperately need the revenue in order for their government to operate and survive and take care of the tribal members,” Meister said. “However, they want to do it in a safe manner.

“It’s not worth it to do it and to harm your customers and employees – that’s the lifeblood of your business,” Meister said. “You don’t have a business if you don’t have any customers nor if you don’t have any employees.”

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