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County Vows To Fight Plans By Tribal Casinos To Reopen Next Week

The east entrance to the hotel at Viejas Casino Resort in Alpine in this unda...

Credit: Viejas Casino Resort

Above: The east entrance to the hotel at Viejas Casino Resort in Alpine in this undated photo.

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Sycuan, Viejas and others have announced plans to reopen. County health officials say they’re working with the CDC to “address the issue.”

Aired: May 14, 2020 |

While schools and government offices grapple over how to safely reopen as the coronavirus pandemic shows no sign of abating, some of the area’s tribal casinos such as Sycuan, Valley View and Viejas, say they’re ready to resume business next week.

But county health officials aren’t happy with the plan and are asking the federal government to help keep the casinos closed.

”We want to make it perfectly clear that we do not agree with reopening casinos on May 18,” County Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten said. “We feel that the health officers’ order does extend to our tribal nations in this particular situation and we’re working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to address this issue further.”

Casinos are owned by Native American tribes that are considered sovereign nations and are not subject to state and county laws.

They were some of the last businesses to close in March as the pandemic started spreading in California.

RELATED: Tribal Casinos In San Diego County Shutting Down Temporarily Starting Friday

The casinos say their plans to reopen next week come with strict social distancing and hygiene requirements along with cutting-edge cleaning technology.

“We are excited to welcome back our guests and start bringing back the hospitality, gaming and fun that Sycuan Casino Resort is known for,” said Cody Martinez, chairman for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, which is planning to reopen on May 20.

Sycuan says its reopening will be staggered.

In phase one, every other slot machine will be turned off for social distancing. Table games such as blackjack will be allowed a maximum of three players.

The casino has installed plexiglass shields and thermal cameras to spot fevers. And Sycuan claims its property now has a “long-term” disinfecting coating that “destroys bacteria and viruses on contact.”

“Over the past several weeks, we have made extensive changes at our property and implemented an aggressive health and sanitation program to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect our guests and team members for our reopening,” Martinez said.

Other casinos, including Valley View and Viejas, slated to reopen next week, are also touting their efforts to keep their businesses virus-free.

In addition to requiring face masks and social distancing, Viejas highlighted its investment in what it calls “new cutting edge UV germicidal technology.”

“This investment is a scaled approach that will eventually protect you passively, providing medical-grade, hospital clean conditions not matched anywhere else,” the casino said on its website.

Karl Steinberg, a North County physician, said despite the sanitation efforts, reopening casinos while people are still getting infected with COVID-19, is dangerous.

“I think this is an ill-advised time to be reopening a place like a casino that can be really like a petri dish for bacterial growth,” Steinberg said. “There’s going to be no way to prevent it because people can be shedding the virus even though they’re not running a fever. And there’s really no way to do social distancing in a casino.”

Steinberg and others are especially concerned about seniors, who are some of the most avid casino patrons. He said he will tell his elderly patients to “stay the heck out of casinos.”

Barona and Pala casino operators say they’ve not made a decision yet on when to reopen

Listen to this story by Amita Sharma.

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Photo of Amita Sharma

Amita Sharma
Investigative Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksAs an investigative reporter for KPBS, I've helped expose political scandals and dug into intractable issues like sex trafficking. I've raised tough questions about how government treats foster kids. I've spotlighted the problem of pollution in poor neighborhoods. And I've chronicled corporate mistakes and how the public sometimes ends up paying for them.

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