Michigan’s commercial casinos were forced to close for three weeks by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer beginning Nov. 18 as a response to rising COVID-19 rates. But five of the 11 tribal casinos located in the Upper Peninsula have elected to stay open.
Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet and Island Resort and Casino in Harris are among those where the slot machines are humming. The Kewadin Casinos, with five locations and based in Sault Ste. Marie, made up most of the closures.
“The decision wasn’t taken lightly,” said Michael Broderick, the general manager at Northern Waters, to Casino.org.
For Northern Waters, which is run by the Lac Vieux Desert Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, the decision was based on health, sovereignty, and finances.
It’s not like the tribe doesn’t have a fantastic relationship with the state government,” Broderick said. “But there is a measure of sovereignty. Why have sovereignty unless you’re able to exercise it?”
Tribal casinos fund government operations. Northern Waters survived the state’s initial two-month shutdown at the start of the pandemic in the spring, and its own shorter shutdown in August after COVID rates spiked in the U.P. Now, the emergency money to shutter its doors again is gone.
Congress still hasn’t created any additional stimulus benefits or continued with the packages that they did when this outbreak first occurred,” Broderick said.
“That was a big help in order to allow us to close. That pile of money is no longer there. So, the ability to sustain that type of furloughing and still continue to pay people and their health insurance premiums, that has gone away pretty much. So now, it’s just a matter of surviving.”
The order issued on Nov. 15 by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services focuses on what it calls “indoor social gatherings.” It claims they are a leading cause of the spread of COVID. However, according to Broderick, its contact tracing has shown zero infections related to the casino, hotel and resort.
Moreover, there was a feeling among tribal leadership that if big-box stores can remain open, why not the casino, with its strong safety protocols?
Along with temperature checks upon entry, mask requirements, and an abundance of sanitizing stations, the casino installed software on its slot machines that notifies staff when a machine is no longer in use. That signals the “Clean Team” to sanitize machines and put them back in play.
“I have to say we’re lucky in that sense. From a guy that works at a casino, we don’t take being ‘lucky’ lightly. It’s a reflection of the protocols that we’ve had in place since we reopened,” Broderick said.
With tourism season having ended with Labor Day and the golf course closed with the arrival of the pre-winter cold, traffic in the casino already was down to such an extent that it no longer had to turn away visitors.
Confusion over Whitmer’s shutdown, which started during the first week of the annual gun-deer season that brings countless orange-clad visitors to the area, didn’t help matters.
When the governor ordered the shutdown on Wednesday, there was a marked difference in the amount of foot traffic that we had that day,” Broderick said.
Table games have been closed for about a week. Dividers have been purchased to keep already socially distanced guests at the tables separated. Once those are installed, the hope is table games will return on Nov. 27.
Meanwhile, the hotel has been operating at about 60 percent occupancy. Once a guest leaves, the room is sanitized and remains vacant for 24 hours before it is made ready for the next visitor.
Fewer customers and guests means reduced revenue, but increased expenses to keep guests and staff safe, Northern Waters is “holding our own” financially, Broderick said.
Elsewhere in Michigan
Staying in the Upper Peninsula, Island Resort and Casino in Harris is remaining open. The casino did cancel its in-house entertainment and limit its restaurant to takeout orders only. That casino is operated by the Hannahville Indian Community, which is a Potawatomi Indian Tribe.
The Kewadin Casinos, operated by the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, followed the governor’s lead and closed its five U.P. casinos beginning Nov. 18. They are scheduled to reopen on Wednesday, Dec. 9.
Bay Mills Resort and Casino in Brimley will reopen on Dec. 8. Tribal Chairman Bryan Newland said the tribe had saved enough CARES Act money to pay its employees during the shutdown.
Venturing out of the U.P., the Four Winds Casinos, located in three cities in Southwestern Michigan, as well as a fourth location in South Bend, Ind., have remained open. Those casinos are operated by the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi.
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