Connecticut’s two tribal casinos reopened Monday despite concerns from state leaders about potential health impacts related to COVID-19.
Tribal leaders, meanwhile, have touted the safety precautions taken by the casinos and the financial need to reopen.
CT tribal casinos ignore Gov. Lamont’s plea
Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun undertook limited reopenings Monday, welcoming gamblers back to new-look campuses. Foxwoods, for instance, opened with only 25% occupancy.
“We feel like we’ve put forward a plan to mitigate the risk,” Rodney Butler, chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, which runs Foxwoods, told WVPE.
“Don’t go with the perception of what casinos were. Let’s focus on what we’re doing, and you have to come and see it.”
The decision to re-open has not been kindly greeted by state officials who feel like casinos are jumping the gun.
Furthering the frustration is the fact neighboring casinos in Massachusetts continue to stay closed. New information about casino openings in Massachusetts could emerge this weekend.
“I think the idea of opening up on June 1 is early,” noted Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont to WVPE.
“It’s earlier than Las Vegas, it’s earlier than any of our regional casinos want to do. I’d like to have more time.”
Those comments didn’t slow down either Foxwoods or Mohegan, which both require visitors to wear masks and submit to temperature checks.
Social distancing guidelines and plexiglass barriers have also been installed.
“Safety and security has always been our number one priority here at Foxwoods,” interim Foxwoods CEO Jason Guyot told NBC Connecticut. “It has really led us to developing our new standards.”
New England gamblers cautious but happy to be back
Visitors to Foxwoods expressed mixed emotions about their return to the casino.
One gambler told NBC Connecticut he had flown in from Nevada for what was a soft reopening last weekend and encountered an apprehensive crowd.
“Everybody is really on edge with the cleanliness here,” said Michael Osborne. “All the way from the blackjack dealers to even the patrons that were sitting next to me.”
The state has potentially exacerbated the feeling, placing electric signs on major routes to the casinos urging people not to “gamble with COVID, avoid large indoor gatherings.”
A Rhode Island resident who made the trip to Foxwoods said that although she was anxious she believed the moment had come to again emerge into society.
“It is time to get out there a little bit,” said Edie Dery. “I live alone. I have self-quarantined enough.”
That apprehension didn’t spread to everyone.
Lisa Relihan, a Litchfield resident, summed up her feelings in one word: “Freedom.”
“This is the first time I have been out. I am a cancer survivor so I was absolutely stuck,” she told the TV station.
Tribal casinos across US reopening before commercial casinos
Connecticut isn’t the only state with casinos ignoring government leaders’ pleas not to open.
Three casinos in California reopened in late May despite requests from Gov. Gavin Newsom to re-evaluate the decision.
“I understand that some tribal governments are planning on reopening casinos on their lands,” wrote Newsom in a letter to tribal leaders.
“This deeply concerns me, and I urge tribal governments to reconsider and instead make those determinations based on how they align with the current local public health conditions and the statewide stage of reopening.”
Newsom said he understood the need for tribes to raise revenue but emphasized the health risks of reopening. Native Americans have been one of the hardest-hit groups during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Casino operators countered by pointing out the safety measures implemented to protect gamblers’ health and the financial necessities of reopening.
“For tribes, their gaming facilities are essential businesses, as they represent the only means of government revenues for healthcare, public safety, education and more,” Jacob Mejia, a spokesman for the Tribal Alliance of Sovereign Indian Nations, told the Los Angeles Times.