Graton Resort Cancels 4,000-Guest New Year’s Eve Party, Temporarily Closes

Posted on December 30, 2020 - Last Updated on January 21, 2021

Tribal casinos in California may not be subject to state governance, as they reside on sovereign land. But that doesn’t mean the communities surrounding them have zero influence.

The narrative about a New Year’s Eve party at a Bay Area casino is evidence of the power of social pressure.

Graton Resort & Casino in Rohnert Park planned to invite 4,000 of its best customers to ring in 2021. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the people who live in the surrounding areas voiced their displeasure. As a result, that party has since been canceled.

What’s the story on this California casino party?

In order to really understand the situation, there’s a little bit of necessary background.

First off, there are no commercial casinos in California. Native American tribes either operate or own all of the full-fledged casinos.

For those properties on tribal lands, the governing body isn’t the state government. Because they’re on sovereign ground, the tribes’ compacts with the state and the US Department of the Interior act as the regulatory framework.

As a result, within the confines of those compacts, tribal casino operators can do as they please. That’s why these casinos stayed open while cardrooms, which are regulated by the state, closed down this year.

Graton Resort sits on tribal lands. The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria operate the property. Thus, the casino is essentially free to ignore the COVID-19 protocols that Gov. Gavin Newsom put in place.

As an example of that independence, Graton Resort planned a party for New Year’s Eve. The casino intended to host “casino VIPs, as well as platinum-tier rewards club members” for the event.

As December has been the deadliest month for coronavirus in the United States so far, with 1 in every 100 people in Sonoma County¬†testing positive, it’s easy to understand why this news wasn’t well-received. And the backlash was powerful.

Graton Resort cancels party, temporarily closes

Local health officials and citizens joined a cavalcade of voices decrying the party. The pressure mounted over days, and Graton Resort officials bowed.

“Our previously scheduled private event has been canceled and we will be closing our doors from 5 p.m. on December 31, 2020, until 6 a.m. on January 1, 2021,” the casino shared in a Facebook post. “We apologize for any inconvenience and look forward to seeing you again in 2021.”

While the casino insists it has instituted many precautions, such as limiting capacity and requiring temperature screenings, closing for even just a short time may be the best thing. Sonoma County health officials have traced 91 positive tests back to casinos.

Additionally, 78 of those 91 cases were people who work at a casino. While Graton Resort says it requires guests to wear face masks, it allows patrons to drink, eat and smoke at will while on the property. That plus the numbers suggest the protocols aren’t as effective as planned.

Hopefully, the temporary closure of the casino will help slow that transmission rate. Additionally, Graton Resort would help its own reputation in the local community by doing a better job of “reading the room” in the future.

Photo by AP / Eric Risberg
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Derek Helling

Derek Helling is a freelance journalist who resides in Kansas City, Mo. He is a 2013 graduate of the University of Iowa and covers the intersections of sports with business and the law.

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