Majority of Tribal Casinos Defied States to Reopen

More than half of U.S. gaming tribes refused to abide by executive orders from governors on reopening their casinos after the Covid-19 shutdown. Some also disregarded orders banning group gatherings. Visitors to Foxwoods (l.) and Mohegan Sun encountered state road signs asking them not to “gamble” with their health.

Gaming tribes in California, Connecticut, Oregon, New York, Florida, North Carolina and other states defied their governors who advised them against reopening their casinos too early due to Covid-19 concerns.

That amounts to 315 casinos out of 524 tribes, or about 60 percent. They range from the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes in Connecticut to the Oneida Indian Nation in New York, to dozens of tribes operating casinos in the Golden State.

Tribal nations are considered sovereign and so don’t fall under the jurisdiction of state governments. Many governors issued executive orders banning large gatherings, including at casinos. But pressures created by the lack of revenues and widespread unemployment proved to be the dominant argument for reopening in most cases.

In South Dakota, tribes set up checkpoints to discourage visitors from out-of-state. In Connecticut, the state Department of Transportation put up signs to discourage motorists from visiting Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, warning, “Don’t Gamble With Covid,”’ but it doesn’t seem to have had much effect. The casinos opened June 1 with 25 percent occupancy.

Nevertheless, Governor Ned Lamont defended his tactics. “People over the age of 65 should not be in large settings. We think that’s dangerous, even now. So, we tried to put some good, strong advice in place as people are on their way to taking a gamble.”

Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation Rodney Butler countered, “I have tribal elders that I’m concerned about. I’m not going to put my community at risk. We’re doing this very, very cautiously and with every safety precaution in mind.” Some tribes implemented clear plastic screens and sneeze guards to protect players and employees.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, who imposed some of the strictest lockdown measures in the nation, said tribal casinos are an exception. “Tribal nations are just that, they’re nations. So they are not bound by state laws,” he said. Commercial casinos remain closed in the Empire State, but the Oneida Indian Nation partially opened three casinos last week.

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s warnings that the “virus does not recognize jurisdictional boundaries” largely fell on deaf ears.

Although Florida Governor Ron DeSantis didn’t try to take on the state’s gaming tribes, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez attacked Miccosukee Resort & Gaming on social media for reopening earlier than other businesses. He also urged senior citizens to stay away from the casino.

Danielle Her Many Horses, deputy executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, commented about the national trend: “You have tribes in states that do want to open up and tribes that are like, ‘No, no, no, we’re going to back off on this because we don’t think that’s the right idea,’” she said. “And you have others who are like, ‘We need to get our people working,’ who are thinking of it in terms of rebooting the economy.”

Washington Governor Jay Inslee worked very closely with the state’s tribes, meeting with them regularly, she pointed out.

On the other hand, when several Sioux tribes in South Dakota set up checkpoints along state and federal highways, Governor Kristi Noem balked. “If the checkpoints are not removed within the next 48 hours, the state will take necessary legal action,” she wrote.