Hundreds Of COVID-19 Cases Tied To San Diego County Tribal Casinos
Earlier this year, San Diego County’s tribal casinos bet big that they could reopen and still keep COVID-19 at bay.
It’s been a bad wager.
County records of community outbreaks obtained by KPBS show that at least 638 COVID-19 cases from late June through mid-December have been linked to seven area casinos.
Records show the highest numbers tied to the county’s two largest casinos, Viejas Casino & Resort and Sycuan Casino & Resort. At least 166 cases have been linked to Viejas and 155 to Sycuan, according to a KPBS analysis of the records.
While the lion’s share of cases are associated with Viejas and Sycuan, the records show no major casino being spared. They reveal 102 cases connected to Barona Resort & Casino; 91 to Jamul Casino; 57 to Harrah’s Resort Southern California; 45 to Valley View Casino & Hotel; and 22 to Pala Casino Spa & Resort.
To say that a case is linked with a location means that a person was there within two weeks of being diagnosed with COVID-19. It does not mean that the person contracted the virus at the location or infected anyone else there.
Yet, Christian Ramers, an infectious-disease doctor, says the numbers tied to the casinos are evidence of “pretty consistent ongoing transmission.”
“It’s very concerning that there’s ongoing transmission in these settings,” said Ramers, who heads Population Health at Family Health Centers of San Diego.
Ramers added that the transmission only helps to fuel the overall community spread.
“It's like a chain reaction,” he said. “We're not going to be able to get our hands around this epidemic when there is just this ongoing transmission.”
Health advocates are especially worried about seniors, who are some of the most avid casino patrons and especially vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19.
County officials rejected interview requests on KPBS' findings. And for months, they’ve refused to release detailed information on community outbreaks, arguing that businesses and organizations wouldn’t report them if they knew they would be public. KPBS and other news outlets sued for the records in San Diego County Superior Court but lost. The case is on appeal.
The county defines a community outbreak as three or more people with COVID-19, who aren’t close contacts, being in a specific place over the same 14-day period. However, it is important to note that just because someone may have visited a location with an outbreak, it doesn’t necessarily mean they were exposed to the virus at that location. And being the site of an outbreak doesn’t necessarily mean the business has unsafe practices.
Tuari Bigknife, chief legal officer for Viejas Enterprises, labeled the case numbers attributed to its casino as “erroneous.”
“While it is true that since reopening, Viejas Casino & Resort has learned of some guests and team members testing positive for COVID-19, those guests and team members typically interacted with numerous other persons and places other than Viejas Casino & Resort during the potential exposure period,” Bigknife said in a written statement.
Sycuan’s Chief Administrative Officer Adam Day said the numbers may reflect a “Thanksgiving bump.” But he also sought to erase any impression that Sycuan casino was a source of community spread.
“To date since the start of the pandemic, there have been no outbreaks linked to our casino and we will continue to operate responsibly with health and safety at the forefront in all of the decisions that we make,” Day said in a written statement.
Representatives from the other tribal casinos linked to outbreaks either declined to comment or didn’t respond to interview requests.
The casinos closed when the pandemic first struck in March, but reopened in May against the wishes of state and county health officials. Tribes are sovereign entities and not bound by state and county orders.
Since resuming business, the casinos have touted new precautions. Sycuan has said it offers COVID-19 testing of guests and provides rapid tests to its workers. Viejas says it does private contact tracing for each positive case associated with the casino.
Also, all the major casinos screen guests for symptoms and require masks and social distancing. Plexiglass divides guests from workers and sanitation of commonly used areas has intensified. And some have curtailed dining and other activities as cases have surged in recent weeks.
Both Viejas and Sycuan have made it clear they have no plans to close again despite a new stay-at-home order from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
“As a tribal government who is responsible for providing medical care, education, police protection, fire protection, etc., to our tribal members, we are an essential business,” Day wrote to KPBS. “With that said, we feel that our safety protocols are stronger than any other essential business, government or otherwise.”
SDSU business lecturer Miro Copic says the tribes’ position on another shutdown is not surprising given what’s at stake.
“From a purely economic perspective, shutting down for extended periods of time would be very detrimental because there is no one tribe that has a casino where its financial impact isn’t important to that tribe,” Copic said.
Copic added that the casinos are big job creators, employing more than 125,000 people statewide.
“These tribes throughout California generate over $3.5 billion in tax revenues for the state and so it's a challenge both for the state to give up that level of tax revenue and also the employment numbers,” Copic said. “It’s a very symbiotic relationship.”
Newsom tried unsuccessfully in May to prod the state’s tribes to hold off on reopening. The state government is still trying.
“The Administration is currently engaged in government-to-government consultation with tribal enterprises located within listed areas of concern to determine the appropriate measures to take moving forward to limit the transmission of COVID-19 on tribal lands,” said the California Department of Public Health in a written response to KPBS.
Copic said he understands why California continues its efforts to persuade the casinos to shut down, especially as cases in the state now average up to 40,000 a day.
“It’s incumbent upon everybody to shut down because it’ll allow us to re-open more effectively and sooner, rather than these fits and starts,” Copic said. “But that’s both a public policy and moral issue.”
San Diego resident Tony Wolf quit his security guard job at Viejas in May because he said he didn’t feel safe with the casino’s reopening. He said he feels the tribes are putting profits over public health, and so are the players.
“It's not essential to go gamble,” Wolf said.
KPBS reporter Claire Trageser and investigative research assistant Katy Stegall contributed to this report.
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