Casinos are Open

For some staff, it's too big a gamble



On May 12, staffers received word from their manager at Bear River Casino Resort saying it would be opening in 10 days and employees were expected to attend a May 18 training at the casino. The plan was to open for high rollers and VIPs on May 22 and to the general public two days later.

One decade-long veteran of the casino floor who asked to remain anonymous so as not to hurt future employment prospects at local casinos, said that in the downtime since shelter in place began March 20, they'd been watching the news about COVID-19 and didn't feel right about casinos reopening while going to bars and mass gatherings were still forbidden. They said that "just having that many people in one place" made them uneasy, along with the idea of handling money and chips.

"Everything gets touched by everybody and there's just not a way to keep it clean," they said over the phone. "A blackjack table is only about 6 feet itself so I don't see how you can have social distance between people. ... The dealer can reach every spot at the table so it's certainly not 6 feet away."

As the May 18 orientation meeting drew near, they said they and other employees were hearing that county officials were asking the casino not to open.

"I was crossing my fingers ... and Sunday rolled around," the employee said, adding that human resources offered them the option of switching to a position with less customer contact but they still didn't feel comfortable. Instead, they submitted a letter of resignation.

California is currently in stage 2 of opening and won't allow mass gatherings of people from separate households in one space — nightclubs, sporting events, street festivals — until stage 4, when the stay-at-home order ends. However, casinos on sovereign Native land, like all those operating in Humboldt, are not obligated to follow state and local shelter-in-place regulations. Blue Lake Casino has told the Journal it's waiting until at least mid-June and that plans could shift depending on local, state and federal guidelines. However, both Bear River and Cher-Ae Heights casinos have opened their doors over the objections of county health officials. And while both gambling venues have shared plans for reducing risk with cleaning and social distancing protocols, some employees have resigned rather than return to their posts. The Journal spoke with half a dozen casino employees, including some who have resigned due to safety concerns since the casinos reopened and all of whom requested anonymity out of fear for their current or future jobs.

In an email response to the Journal, Josefina Cortez, tribal chair of the Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria, said business has been steady and guests have been following the rules at the casino, which is temporarily not serving alcohol or allowing smoking. Protocols also include mandating that customers and staff wear facial coverings and having their temperatures taken with touch-free thermometers at the door.

"Anyone with a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or greater, or showing signs of illness (like constant coughing, sneezing or sweating) may not enter the casino and is advised to seek medical advice," wrote Cortez. "Guests also have their ID scanned at the entrances. This scan is saved to cloud storage so that Bear River Casino Resort will be able to provide contact tracing assets to [the county Department of Health and Human Services] or other agencies, if necessary."

Cortez also described changes in layout to minimize crowding, like moving 42 of its casino's 340 slot machines into its ballroom, where they're placed with seats 6 feet apart. Table games, she said, are being dealt face-up (so players don't touch the cards) for only two to three players per table, and staff are sanitizing chips throughout the day. On June 3 the casino also announced the installation of Plexiglass screens between guests and dealers at tables.

"Dealers sanitize their hands before beginning to deal on any table," she wrote. "Our table games supervisors wipe down the table rails and chairs each time a guest gets up from a seat and before a new one arrives."

Cortez said the same wipe-down protocol between guests is applied to slot machines, which are being monitored by staff. And signs and decals around the casino are meant to guide customers in maintaining physical distance.

In a May 22 press release, the casino also touted its use of TruClean, an antimicrobial surface coating that "stops the growth of microorganisms for up to a year with a single application" with "a unique molecule that is like a microscopic sword." However, the Lost Coast Outpost later reported the makers of TruClean are not legally "allowed to make any public health claims" about their product and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says there is "no scientific evidence" that such products "prevent the spread of germs and harmful microorganisms in humans." Asked about TruClean, Cortez responded that it was never "meant as a stand-alone solution or as a replacement to good old-fashioned scrubbing and cleaning."

The overall plan, Cortez explained, is one the tribal council and casino management came to after talking with other tribal leaders and consulting CDC guidelines. Asked about health officials' concerns over mass gatherings, she answered, "We are not allowing guests or team members to gather together in one place."

In a May 18 statement to media outlets, Humboldt County Public Health Officer Teresa Frankovich was unequivocal in her opposition to opening entertainment venues like casinos at this stage of shelter in place ("Why Mass Gatherings Terrify Health Officials," May 21).

"As careful as [the casinos] might be ... you cannot get away from the fact that we're putting large numbers of people into a space indoors for extended periods of time," she said, adding that extended periods of time increase risk.

In Nevada, health officials and hospitality workers are watching with concern as casinos far larger than those in our county reopen on the Las Vegas strip because of their capacity to become hubs for spreading COVID-19. In a June 8 New York Times article about the reopenings, the president of a casino workers' union called the enormous casinos there "cruise ships on land."

Studies have shown COVID-19 is spread largely through droplets of saliva produced by coughing, sneezing or speaking, as well as aerosols. Standing back 6 feet helps keep those droplets from touching us, and sanitizing our hands and surfaces keeps us from touching those tiny, virus-laden drops and potentially transferring them to our mouths or eyes. But researchers also believe aerosols contribute to mass exposures. Those aerosols are so tiny that rather than dropping to the ground like droplets, they drift through the air as long as a half an hour, according to one study. Further, studies have shown that people are likely to emit more aerosols while breathing heavily or speaking loudly. So a closed casino that's filled with noise and built to entice a large number of guests to linger presents a scary scenario for health officials, no matter the extent of sanitizing measures put in place.

Bear River's plan was not enough to assure that long-term employee, either.

"I feel that even though they are taking precautions — they have consulted with people and even though they have plans to sanitize ... it's a closed area, everyone is inside and the same air is getting pumped in. And it's just not essential," they said, recalling the speed at which they've seen colds and flu travel through the casino. "I just think this is a gamble that is not worth it when it could be life and death and not just a stuffy nose."

Another dealer who has worked at Bear River Casino for years but asked to remain anonymous because they may seek employment at the casino again, agreed.

"They did put in thought to try to minimize the risk of contagion," they said. "I don't think it should be open, period, but they did put in effort in thinking about how to minimize risk."

But some of the risk, the employee said, comes down to the clientele. Customers, they said, "are a mixed bag but not everybody has great hygiene."

Ultimately, despite enjoying the work and the pay — hovering around the $7.25 federal minimum wage but with maybe $200 in tips on a good day — that dealer won't be going back to the tables yet. The casino, they said, offered an increased base pay that made up for lower tips from fewer customers — a solid $38 an hour for some pit dealers — but it wasn't enough. "Even though they've put safeguards in place," the dealer said, "it's putting money before the public."

Plexiglass dividers between dealers and players at Bear River Casino Resort. - COURTESY OF BEAR RIVER CASINO
  • Courtesy of Bear River Casino
  • Plexiglass dividers between dealers and players at Bear River Casino Resort.

A number of dealers have quit, even after being warned by the casino's HR department that doing so could jeopardize their unemployment benefits, since they'd been offered and refused work.

Cortez said stories like these are in the minority and the "vast majority of our team has returned to work. For those who did not, many have availed themselves of the various programs available. For those who were not eligible for any of these programs, but did not return to work when called, they received a letter giving them a second opportunity to return to work. Some resigned and some refused to return to work." She stated the casino filed the standard paperwork regardless, and, "As for any individual's unemployment status or eligibility to receive unemployment benefits, that is between the individual and the agencies that provide this assistance."

The California Employment Development Department website says unemployed workers won't necessarily lose benefits if they refuse work due to "reasonable" COVID-19 related safety concerns and only refused work as a last resort.

But for one longtime employee, the loss is not only financial, though finding a similar paying job in Humboldt may not be easy.

"Pretty much my whole adult life I've been there," they said. "Not only do I [miss] my coworkers — they're like my family — but I want them to be OK and I don't want to make their jobs harder, but I just don't feel like it's safe."

On May 18, two months after shuttering along with other businesses throughout Humboldt County, Cher-Ae Heights Casino announced it would open at 8 a.m. on May 22. A post to the casino's website by General Manager Ryan Sundberg described a bevy of pandemic-minded safety measures: plexiglass barriers at cashier stations, its gift shop, the bingo check-in station and grill; social distancing rules; face masks required on the casino floor for guests and staff; temperature checks and hand washing stations; a temporary ban on smoking and alcohol; and daily closures for cleaning in the wee hours. Like many grocery stores, the casino even offers early senior hours for those over 55, though they don't overlap with the evening bingo schedule, which is overwhelmingly popular with older patrons.

The opening of table games, Sundberg wrote, would be delayed to a later date.

One Cher-Ae Heights dealer told the Journal that a number of table games staff "all texted the boss and said, 'We're not going back until everything's more clear.'" While Cher-Ae Heights management declined to comment beyond statements already posted on the website, table games reopened June 3. The casino's website laid out safety measures for them, including requiring masks, limited seating and a ban on food and drink.

But the dealer said they and their co-workers are "stuck at the table for hours" a couple feet from players.

"I just don't think there's any way to make a casino safe," they said. "I think it's the most non-essential business there is. ... I think it's just they're putting money over people. And our clientele is a lot of elderly people."

Similar worries came up in a private Facebook group some of the workers, who are not unionized, used to share information and advice about safety and dealing with human resources. "We don't have a way to get together that's comfortable and safe," said one member.

Another employee working the casino floor echoed concern about vulnerable populations, saying, "We're encouraging older people to come in when they really shouldn't." This is particularly true for bingo, they said.

"It's pretty chaotic," said a third employee who's worked at Cher-Ae Heights a handful of years and covered the bingo room during the casino's opening week. "They can have up to 100 people in that room and there's supposed to be social distancing but people just sit wherever they want right next to each other."

"People don't mind the 6-feet rule at all," said another employee who worked opening week. Security was trying to remind people to wear masks inside, they said, and the janitorial staff was working hard. They were not the only employee who told the Journal physical distance was often ignored by customers, including at the slot machines.

One said, "It's the patrons that are the problem as much as the setup." Asked how they felt about their own safety, the employee said, "I don't feel good about it." A few days later, they resigned.

Multiple employees said that they were disappointed Cher-Ae Heights, unlike Bear River Casino, had not offered them pay increases despite the expected lower tips due to lower attendance and increased health risks. A letter signed by Sundberg confirming pay would remain the same as it had been pre-shutdown was sent to employees May 22. It also said, "As of your return date, and depending on the level of any reduction to your schedule (if any), you may no longer be eligible for such [unemployment] benefit as determined by the State. Cher-Ae Heights is required to notify EDD of any change in employment status once an offer of employment is made, such as a volunteer resignation, and that may affect any ongoing benefits."

Contacted and asked to comment on the reopening, General Manager Ryan Sundberg responded, "Not if Judy Hodgson still owns your paper," before hanging up.

While Cher-Ae Heights and Bear River are back in business, some employees remain leery of taking the gamble, at least with the current odds.

"A decent raise and some time and I would consider coming back," said one staffer, "but I don't have a lot of faith that any of that is going to happen. ... They keep talking about how valuable [employees] are but they don't show it ever. And it's really coming out now."

Jennifer Fumiko Cahill is the arts and features editor at the Journal and prefers she/her. Reach her at 442-1400, extension 320, or Follow her on Twitter @JFumikoCahill.

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