Movie theaters across Arizona are empty.
Gyms have locked their doors.
And restaurants are filled with taped-off tables, welcoming half of the customers they would usually see for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But casinos, which operate on tribal land in Arizona, are open for business, despite health experts warning that customers are engaging in a high-stakes gamble: risking their health along with their money.
Casinos are the only business designated as high-risk by Arizona’s health department that remain unrestricted amid the recent COVID-19 spike in the state.
But some public health experts say they shouldn’t be. Dr. Shad Marvasti, director of public health at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Phoenix, said Arizona is “not close to control in terms of our numbers” and that all high-risk activities should be temporarily put on hold.
“As long as our percent positive cases are as high as they are, I don’t think any of these places should be open, from a public health safety view, until we get those numbers down,” he said.
Casinos managers and tribal leaders say they are taking the pandemic seriously and are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And customers like Linda Ross, who has visited several casinos in the past two months, say they feel safe.
“The ones I’ve been to feel pretty safe to me,” Ross said. “But maybe that’s an illusion, a false sense of safety.”
Who can shut down the casinos?
Casinos were closed for the duration of Gov. Doug Ducey’s stay-at-home order.
But the state does not have the authority to shut them down because they operate on tribal lands, according to Patrick Ptak, a spokesperson for the governor.
Tribal lands have sovereignty, which allows indigenous people to govern themselves and perpetuate traditional ways of life in tribal communities. Tribal businesses, including casinos, have special status and operate independently of state government. Casinos opted to close in March in cooperation with the state.
Several Phoenix-area casinos, including Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino, Gila Rivers Hotels & Casinos and Fort McDowell Casino, reopened immediately after Ducey lifted his stay-at-home order in mid-May.
Other casinos, such as Desert Diamond Casino West Valley, Talking Stick Casino and Casino Arizona, opted for later reopenings in early June.
Now, Ptak said the state is “working closely” with casinos to provide guidance on safety measures.
But decisions on what safety standards are implemented and whether to stay open or shutter are entirely in the hands of gaming enterprise and tribal leaders.
Casino officials emphasized that customer and employee safety always comes first.
Still, profit from gaming enterprises makes up a substantial amount of tribal governments’ budgets. Gila River Indian Community Gov. Stephen Lewis acknowledged when casinos first reopened that revenue from gambling funds about 75% of the community’s budget.
Other ways of making that revenue, such as virtual gaming, have yet to be regulated in Arizona. Therefore, casinos are not authorized to offer online gambling options.
President Bernadine Burnette of the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation said her community’s casino is “the economic engine that supports our tribal government.”
“The two months that we closed the casino were economically devastating to the community, our employees and vendors just as it was to so many Arizona businesses closed during that time,” she said.
Casino leaders also have to take their employees’ livelihoods into consideration.
“These are unprecedented times, and we are doing everything possible to help care for our community and the men and women who are providing for their families and loved ones,” a statement from Gila River Hotels & Casinos read.
Setting safety standards
Because the state cannot force casinos to adopt specific safety measures, each gaming enterprise is creating its own rules.
Gila River Hotels & Casinos, which implemented some of the strictest safety measures in Valley after an employee died of COVID-19, is consulting with health experts “on a daily basis,” according to a statement.
Matt Smith, a public relations consultant for the Tohono O’odham Nation, said safety practices at Desert Diamond Casino West Valley “meet or exceed guidance” from health authorities.
Current CDC guidelines classify casino operations into four categories:
Open casinos that are only allowing gaming machines and are disinfecting them between each customer. Machines are arranged so customers and employees maintain six feet of distance, and gaming materials are not being shared.
Open casinos that are allowing games involving a dealer but are restricting the number of participants. Machines and gaming tables are arranged so customers and employees maintain six feet of distance, and casinos are making efforts to limit what gaming materials are shared.
Casinos that are operating as usual, without restrictions.
Most Phoenix-area casinos are operating at the third level. If casinos are going to be open, Marvasti said it’s important for them to “really keep it at the lowest levels.”
As casinos continue to set safety measures, additional issues have come to the surface. Some employees working for enterprises with multiple locations said they have been traveling between different casinos on a daily basis and have growing concerns about catching and spreading COVID-19.
Marvasti said the employee travel, a symptom of casinos being understaffed while employees are out sick or quarantining because of preexisting conditions, “doesn’t make sense” and heightens risks for everybody.
Some casinos have also rolled back earlier promises. When Gila River Hotels & Casinos reopened, they touted that their locations would close each night at 2 a.m. to deep-clean their facilities. But recently, the casinos went back to being open 24 hours per day, urging visitors to their website to “reclaim your fun.”
Leaders said in a statement that public health remains their priority.
“(Gila River Hotels & Casinos) aims to strike a balance in our business practices to maintain a healthy long-term outlook, while giving our valued team members the opportunity to provide for themselves and their loved ones,” the statement read. “Our precautionary enterprise-wide safety efforts have been working well, and we continue to aggressively evaluate and sanitize.”
Safety measures vary between casinos. Most notably, some have instituted total smoking bans, while other have opted to create designated smoking areas in their casinos rather than forbidding it entirely.
Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Casino, which are operated by the Salt River Pima–Maricopa Indian Community, were the first to implement a smoking ban. A spokesman for the gaming enterprise declined to comment on the smoking ban, the casinos’ current safety measures and concerns about whether casinos should be open amid Arizona’s COVID-19 spike.
Since reopening, other casinos have also implemented new rules around smoking. At Desert Diamond Casino West Valley, vaping is currently banned and smoking is limited to designated areas. Smith said the West Valley location has created “significant non-smoking areas” and has “maximized external airflow from our state-of-the-art HVAC system.”
Fort McDowell Casino has also created a non-smoking area, according to Burnette.
Gila River Hotels & Casinos has banned smoking entirely on casino floors, according to a statement from casino leaders.
“We believe this was the responsible and prudent action to take,” the statement read. “We understand that this choice has the potential to significantly reduce our revenues; however, our decisions are made in collaboration with community and experts involved.”
Leaders said most customers have been supportive of the ban and that smoking patrons have been using designated smoking areas set up away from casino floors.
“Recently, some customers have expressed their unwillingness to visit our enterprise due to our smoking ban,” Gila River Hotels & Casinos’ statement read. “We respect their right to do so; however, we have weighed all information available … which lead us to the determination that a smoking ban is currently the best approach to keep individuals healthy, even if our revenues are negatively impacted for the time being.”
Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino recently restricted smoking, updating its health and safety measures to create designated smoking areas on the casino floor and outside of the building. Abbie Fink, a public relations consultant for the Ak-Chin Indian Community, said Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino is continuing the “dynamic process” of reevaluating safety measures as “new, credible information becomes available.”
Marvasti said smoking bans are a “big consideration” in whether customers and employees are safe inside casinos during the pandemic.
“Cigarettes involve touching your mouth and you have to lower your mask to smoke, so you’re not able to keep it on at all times while you play,” he said. “The other issue is that even with people who have been smoking for years, it can cause you to cough and that obviously can spread the virus through the air, so that adds another layer of risk.”
The view from inside
Before the pandemic, Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino was Ross’s favorite gaming enterprise. She said she regularly visited to take advantage of the casino’s giveaways, even though it was a long drive from her home in Scottsdale.
Now, Ross won’t go into the casino. She said she only goes to casinos with smoking bans.
“I won’t go anywhere they allow smoking; I call first,” she said. “If you exhale and you are a carrier, you’re just putting that out into the air, and I think that’s very dangerous. I wish all the casinos were banning it.”
She’s become a more frequent customer at Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Casino, which are nearer to her home. Ross said she has also been to Gila River’s Wild Horse Pass Casino.
Inside, she feels mostly safe. Still, she said she has seen people violating the rules.
“They have rules and stuff, the problem is the violators,” she said. “I saw a man sitting with a mask under his nose, so I told somebody and he went and told him he had to put his mask over his nose. A while later, I saw him taking it down again.”
Ross said she wishes casinos would ask violators to leave immediately, rather than giving repeated warnings. But she said violators are easy to avoid, and because she practices social distancing and wears a mask, face shield and gloves, she feels comfortable.
“I think they should have to do all the things — they should not allow smoking, take temperatures, everybody has to wear a mask and if they pull it down they have to leave,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s so terrible for them to be open. I don’t know how I feel about it.”
Burnette said casinos cannot stay closed forever. While Fort McDowell Casino is open, she said creating a safe environment for guests and employees is foremost on her mind.
“No one has experienced anything like this pandemic in our lifetime,” she said. “Unfortunately, we are going to be dealing with this disease for a long time. There is no magic bullet that will end this short (of a) cure or vaccine, and nobody knows when either will be available. Meanwhile, we have all had to adjust our lives to this new reality.”
Public health experts believe casinos, like every other business, should go through a process of phased reopenings and closings as COVID-19 flares and subsides in areas around the country.
Marvasti fears if casinos remain open, even with strict rules for customers and employees, Arizona’s death toll will continue to rise.
“It’s not like we don’t know what works,” he said. “We have months of experience now in other parts of the country, other parts of the world and the previous epicenters. You do what you need to do in terms of shutting down temporarily and you get reductions in the numbers.”
Have a question or tip? Reach the reporter Sasha Hupka at Alexandra.Hupka@gannett.com or on Twitter: @SashaHupka.
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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Why are casinos open? Experts say they’re high risk amid COVID spike