Idaho Tribal Casinos Starting To Re-Emerge After Coronavirus Shutdowns

May 12, 2020

The coronavirus has shut down many businesses across the country. That includes casinos, with tribal leaders trying to navigate how to safely reopen these critical sources of revenue.

The Nez Perce Tribe shut down their two gaming operations – Clearwater River Casino near Lapwai and It’se Ye-Ye Casino in Kamiah – a full week before Gov. Brad Little issued his stay-at-home order on March 25.

That decision wasn’t taken lightly, according to Kermit Mankiller who oversees all tribal enterprises for the Nez Perce. Mankiller said it was the right move to keep the community safe, but it also comes at a price.

“Tribes don’t necessarily have a tax base,” he said.

The money generated at these casinos pays for social services on the reservation, which is a big part of the tribe’s revenue. 

Mankiller wouldn’t share how much the two gaming operations generate for the tribe, or how many visitors they attract every year, saying it’s proprietary information.

But he said it’s a significant piece of the budget, along with their recent purchase of the Clarkston Golf & Country Club just across the Snake River in Washington and other businesses, like Zims Hot Springs near New Meadows and two convenience stores.

The tribe has been developing a plan to reopen to ensure the safety of their workforce and guests alike.

“We just need to make sure that whatever they encounter, as far as social distancing, sanitizing, wearing masks, whatever it may be, that it is justified,” Mankiller said.

About 100 miles north, the Coeur d’Alene Casino has been open since May 1. The casino, resort and Circling Raven Golf Club are located on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation in Kootenai County, which hasn’t had a single positive test for coronavirus. The businesses combined attract upwards of 1.2 million visitors each year.

Heather Keen, a spokeswoman for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, said they’ve turned off every other slot machine and require everyone to wear facemasks as ways of promoting safe social distancing.

“We installed plexiglass in key areas,” Keen said. “In the restaurants, we’ve removed tables and chairs so that’s done quite a bit.”

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe also shut down their operations before Little’s order was issued nearly two months ago. They kept everyone on the payroll, even though Keen said it was a financial pressure point.

“They looked at the numbers and it was really important for tribal council to be able to provide that stability and that certainty for folks during this time,” she said.

It’s not all back to normal, though. The buffet is still closed and the casino shuts down for a few hours every night to be sanitized.

The Associated Press reports more than 500 tribal casinos have voluntairly closed due to the threat of COVID-19.

Boise State Public Radio reached out to the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes, which operate two casinos in eastern Idaho, but didn't receive a response.

On the Nez Perce Reservation, Mankiller said they hope to reopen the Clearwater River Casino and It’se Ye-Ye Casino on May 16, but it’s not set in stone. Nimiipuu Health said there’s no evidence of community spread, but officials have confirmed 16 cases of COVID-19 on the reservation, all near Lewiston.

Whenever it’s safe to do so, he said it’ll be an encouraging symbol for the area.

“I believe that that’ll be signaling to a lot of people in our communities, both native and non-native, that we are as normal as we’re going to be for the near future,” Mankiller said.

Follow James Dawson on Twitter @RadioDawson for more local news.

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