That was just the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak and its impacts on Oregon’s tribal casinos. Some of the casinos announced target dates for reopening, but the closures have since been extended, in most cases until further notice. Closures have also affected casino-related facilities such as hotels, RV parks, restaurants, and golf courses. Brown has prohibited non-essential recreational and social gatherings, banned on-premises consumption of food or drink, and ordered Oregonians to stay home “to the maximum extent possible.” However, the governor has made it clear that she has no authority to close casinos on tribal lands. As sovereign nations, tribes make the decisions about when their casinos will open or close. “We have followed the rule of whatever’s best for our customers and our tribal members,” said Delores Pigsley, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, which owns the Chinook Winds Casino Resort in Lincoln City. The tribes have a weekly call with the governor and, Pigsley said, the state has respected their decisions. She added that Brown wants to know about anything the state and tribes can jointly do to address the pandemic. The Siletz Tribal Council, which serves as the board of directors for Chinook Winds, closed its casino on March 17, and it will remain closed through April 30. Although each Oregon tribe will make its own decision about when to reopen, Pigsley said the tribes have had a couple of multi-tribe meetings since the casinos closed to share information and ideas. “What we all are doing is the same guessing game,” she said. The question on everyone’s mind: “Do you think we’re going to be able to open in May?” The answer will have an enormous impact on the jobs and services that tribal governments provide across Oregon. Pigsley described the revenues derived by Chinook Winds and other casinos across the state as extremely significant. Tribal governments do not collect taxes like a state or local government, so revenues from gaming and other tribal enterprises are effectively their tax base. The amusement, gambling and recreation sector—along with casino hotels— accounted for nearly 60 percent of Indian tribal government employment in Oregon last year. Casinos also provide jobs for non-tribal members, who are the majority of casino employees. Oregon casinos are located on tribal lands in predominantly non-urban areas, where they stimulate tourism and are major drivers of the local economy. The Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance, a coalition that includes seven of Oregon’s nine tribes, reports that tribal gaming accounted for $1.49 billion dollars in total economic output in 2017, the latest year for which data are available. This supported 11,262 jobs statewide either directly or indirectly. Casino revenues provided $131.5 million in 2017 to the tribes operating them.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation are conducting a "deep cleaning" of their casino and canceling all public events after an employee became the latest case of the coronavirus in #Oregon. #COVID19 #Coronavirus https://t.co/h7HKGHRw2E— indianz.com (@indianz) March 2, 2020
Oregon’s tribal casinos donated $134.1 million to local charities from 1992, when the first Oregon casino opened, to 2017. In Washington, the ilani casino resort last month donated $775,000 to Pacific Northwest nonprofits aiding people affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a press release , tribal chair William Iyall called this “a bittersweet moment” for the tribe, noting that the donations “are made possible by the many individuals who have been integral to the success of our casino, ilani, which has temporarily ceased operations as we work to protect our team members and their families as well as our guests and the wider community.” Project director Bob Whelan, the lead author of the economic analysis prepared for the Oregon Tribal Gaming Alliance by the consulting firm ECONorthwest, estimates that Oregon tribal casinos and the hotels and restaurants associated with them probably would have pulled in about $620 million in revenue this year, if not for the COVID-19 closures. The tribes would have paid at least $215 million of that revenue in wages and benefits for approximately 4,500 casino employees. After expenses and charitable donations, the tribes would have been left with roughly $130 million to support tribal services, Whalen estimates. Those programs employ about 650 teachers, dentists, social workers, and other personnel. The casino and tribal government jobs are about half of the total workforce supported by gaming, according to the ECONorthwest analysis. Casino restaurants on the Oregon coast, for example, indirectly support local jobs in the fresh seafood business. When the casinos shut down last month, tribal income abruptly stopped, but the bills for utilities and other expenses keep coming, and the tribes need to retain key staff for their eventual reopening.
Researchers at the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development released the preliminary results of a study reporting that “the COVID-19 crisis poses an immediate threat to three decades of steady improvement in economic conditions across Indian Country.” Across the nation, the study noted, tribes have closed more than 500 casinos, as well as non-gaming businesses. Prior to this mass shutdown, according to the study, tribes’ gaming enterprises alone channeled more than $12.5 billion per year into tribal government programs. Researchers warned that “the largest share of lost jobs and lost income would be borne by non-Indians,” who stand to lose 915,000 of the 1.1 million jobs at stake. Here’s a snapshot of financial miseries after four Oregon casino closures: — Chinook Winds: The Siletz Tribe paid all employees for two weeks after the casino closed and extended health benefits through April, but laid off 720 employees. — Wildhorse Resort & Casino: The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation paid wages and health benefits for its employees through the end of March. Since then, the casino furloughed employees from April 1 to April 12, giving them the option of using accrued sick or vacation leave. All non-essential employees are on unpaid leave until April 26 and can file for unemployment benefits. — Indian Head Casino: The Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, which owns and operates the casino, has committed to paying wages and continuing benefits to all employees until April 29, to cover the first six weeks since Oregon’s stay-at-home order went into effect. — Spirit Mountain Casino : Oregon’s largest casino, owned and operated by the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, has paid employees for six weeks of time off, including compensation for tips – enough to cover them through the end of April. Spirit Mountain manager Stan Dillon said the casino will use the time off to continue remodeling its hotel.
Joe Kalt, Ford Foundation Professor of International Political Economy, Emeritus and co-director of the Harvard Project on American Indian Economic Development, on the challenges that COVID-19 poses for Indian Country@Kennedy_School #COVID #Indigneoushttps://t.co/Ey6zZN5xHr— Harvard Native (@Harvard_Natives) April 22, 2020
April 1, 2020 Spirit Mountain Casino Remains Closed Until Further Notice Spirit Mountain Casino continues to monitor...Posted by Spirit Mountain Casino on Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Dawn Stover is a freelance science and environmental writer based in White Salmon, Washington, and a contributing editor and columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists . Previously, she was a staff editor at Harper’s and Popular Science magazines, and an adjunct instructor in the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University.
Note: This story originally appeared on Underscore.news , a nonprofit news team based in Portland, Oregon. It is published here with permission. Reporting by Underscore.news is funded by foundations, corporate sponsors and you! Please consider a donation to support our in-depth, collaborative coverage of Oregon.