One California Tribal Casino Closes, Gov. Newsom Pressured To Close The Rest

Written By Joe Boozell on July 14, 2020

The Havasu Landing Resort & Casino has closed again due to COVID-19. The coronavirus “has reached the Chemehuevi Indian Reservation,” according to a press release on the casino’s website. The casino will close its doors for a minimum of 14 days.

“In this case, it has also affected two departments that are mandatory to the operation of any casino,” the release continues. “Without these two departments we cannot legally open and operate a gaming facility.”

As a tribal casino, the Havasu is not required by the state to close at this time. Although California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered cardrooms to close last week, tribal casinos have sovereign rights over operations on their lands. However, the California Gaming Association (CGA) is urging Newsom to take action.

The biggest tribal casinos are staying open

PlayCA reached out to the five biggest California tribal casinos by gaming floor size and offering, which are:

  • Pechanga Resort & Casino (Temecula)
  • Cache Creek Casino Resort (Brooks)
  • San Manuel Indian Bingo & Casino (Highland)
  • Thunder Valley Casino (Lincoln)
  • Viejas Casino & Turf Club (Alpine)

As of Tuesday, all are open.

Controversy swirls at Thunder Valley

Thunder Valley Casino is still open despite two employees resigning last week, citing a lack of COVID-19 protocols.

“There’s a lack of safety concerns for guests, employees and myself,” Michelle Olsen, who worked at Thunder Valley Casino Resort for 13 years, told ABC 10. “After speaking to my doctor and the health conditions that I have, I decided to make a decision that my health is more important and my family is more important, and I really don’t want to catch this.”

Olsen added that social distancing measures are not being enforced, and not all guests are wearing masks inside of the casino.

An anonymous employee offered similar concerns.

“They gave us one mask — a cloth one they made — and that was on June 5, and I’ve had the same one ever since,” the employee said. “I haven’t received another one, and I have to take it home and wash it everyday. And, in fact, the first couple weeks we opened, I worked 19 out of 21 days.”

Thunder Valley is still open as of now, but for how long? That may depend on whether or not the CGA gets its way.

CGA wants tribal casinos closed

The CGA recently sent a letter to Newsom asking him to order all casinos including tribal to temporarily close as California COVID-19 cases surge.

That begs the question, does Newsom have the authority to do so? It’s complicated. Normally, the answer would be no. But in the letter, the CGA notes a part of the tribal compact that says:

“The Tribe shall not conduct Class III Gaming in a manner that endangers the public health, safety, or welfare, provided, however, that nothing herein shall be construed to make applicable to the Tribe any state laws or regulations governing the use of tobacco.”

Kyle Kirkland, president of the CGA, believes Newsom is able to do so based on the circumstances.

“This is a contract, right? This is an agreement between the state and the tribes to offer gaming within our state,” Kirkland said. “So the deal is you need to adhere to the contract, and if the governor feels like there’s a real health and safety risk, we need [to] pull this back. My read of it, is that he can do it.”

California COVID-19 outlook

It’s… not great.

California reported 8,358 new cases on July 13 to bring the state’s total to 329,162 positive cases. On June 13, the state reported 3,149 new cases.

Deaths are also on the rise, with a rolling seven-day average of 91 fatalities. A month ago, the rolling seven-day average was 62.

It looks like a battle may be coming between the CGA, the state government and tribal casinos as California continues to roll back its reopening. We’ll keep you updated with the latest.

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