As many businesses remained under orders to stay closed during the coronavirus pandemic, tribes in San Diego County bucked recommendations from outside leaders and reopened their casinos with measures designed to limit the spread of illness.

It’s unclear if the gamble paid off.

Public health officials have confirmed that more than 300 of the county’s residents who contracted COVID-19 reported visiting a casino shortly before testing positive. 

But the county won’t disclose whether any community outbreaks occurred at local casinos because they’re on tribal lands. The tribal governments have released little information and aren’t subject to federal and state disclosure laws as sovereign entities.

Why this matters

The nine tribal casinos in San Diego County began reopening in May with limited operations, about two months after shutting down due to COVID-19. Because they are on sovereign land, they aren’t subject to local health regulations that ordered other businesses remain closed.

That means local outbreaks potentially are being left out of a metric the county considers in reopening decisions. Already, San Diego fails to stay under the threshold for outbreaks set by public health officials.

The casinos began reopening in May with new cleaning, social distancing and face covering policies, but some of their employees have raised concerns.

In late August, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an investigation into Harrah’s Resort Southern California in Valley Center following a complaint. The case remains open and no further public details are available.

The casino also is involved in a lawsuit brought by its former general manager, who says he was so concerned about health risks from reopening that he had no choice but to quit.

Harrah’s Resort Southern California in Valley Center is shown on Sept. 3, 2020. A former executive is suing over the casino’s reopening. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Over the past two months, inewsource visited seven of the county’s nine tribal casinos. At each establishment, workers used handheld devices, thermal cameras or body scanners to check body temperatures of people entering the casinos. 

Some casinos have disabled every other slot machine to enforce social distancing and have shut down some table games. Attendants at table games that remain open wear protective gear, and some casinos have installed plexiglass barriers.

Many, but not all, indoor restaurants and food courts have fully reopened. Guests are allowed to pull down their face coverings when drinking, eating or smoking.

While smoking, eating, or drinking visitors are not required to wear masks at Sycuan casino, Aug. 14, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Each business had varying levels of enforcement and open activities. Pala Casino Spa Resort in North County, for example, has reduced its transportation program but continues to bus in guests from throughout Southern California. Online it’s selling tickets to concerts.

Employees at three of the county’s casinos said the new protocols aren’t always followed. inewsource agreed not to name them because they feared losing their jobs.

Mask policies are difficult to enforce with guests, they said, and crowds can form around table games and slot machines despite social distancing efforts. Some said their management isn’t providing them any information about cases linked to their workplace.

One employee at the Sycuan Casino Resort in East County said she prays for her health before each shift.

“I cannot just let my job go because I’m scared,” she said. “I’m scared, but I’m there. I need the money. If I don’t have the job, I can’t afford my house. Then I’ll be living on the streets with my kids.”

A woman floats in one of the pools at the Sycuan Casino Resort, where social distancing measures are in place, Aug. 14, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

With the exception of Sycuan, casino officials declined to comment for this story, did not respond or referred a reporter to safety policies posted online. In a May 8 letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom, county Supervisor Greg Cox and other officials, eight of the gaming tribes explained their decision to reopen, saying they believed they could ensure the well being of guests and employees and scale back if needed.

They also reminded the officials that the casinos are a “lifeline” for funding essential tribal government operations including police, fire, healthcare, education, housing and environmental protections.

Juggling economic, safety concerns 

In mid-August, when an inewsource reporter was invited to tour Sycuan with a casino official, once-furloughed employees rehired as “safety agents” walked the floor reminding guests to cover their faces and provided a mask if they didn’t have one. 

Most complied. One maskless woman waved the offer away and kept walking, despite prodding.

It was the first day of a new self-imposed rule requiring robust masks following research suggesting bandanas, gaiters and coverings with valves were less effective at limiting the spread of coronavirus respiratory droplets. The Barona, Viejas and Valley View casinos have adopted similar policies. 

Eddie Ilko, Sycuan’s safety manager, said the mask policies have been a “learning curve” for guests and employees. He said the casino has worked with tribal regulatory officials and leaders to adapt as the pandemic continues.

Ilko said he feels safe on the casino floor because of the measures.

“We’re safer because a lot of the history Indian Country has had, so we’ve had to be above and beyond whatever the local and state regulations are,” he said.

Some of the casinos have posted online that they are hiring. In their letter to Newsom and other officials about reopening, the casinos said they support “tens of thousands” of San Diegans economically.

Tribal casinos generated $4.4 billion in direct and indirect economic spending in Southern California in 2014, according to the latest available report from the California Nations Indian Gaming Association. They directly employed 24,100 people.

The casinos’ financial losses from the roughly two months they were closed when Newsom ordered businesses to shut down aren’t publicly known.

But in California, preliminary figures show employment by gambling industries dropped 41% in the state from March through August. Employment by Indian tribes, including at casinos they manage directly, dropped by 14% during the same period.

Visitors are seen on the floor of the Sycuan casino in East County, Aug. 14, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Since the casinos reopened, county public health officials say 112 employees and 196 patrons with confirmed COVID-19 diagnoses visited a local casino within 14 days of their illness. The 308 cases are as of Oct. 5 and include three people who died.

Ninety-one of the cases have been reported since Sept. 1.

County public health officials stress that a person’s presence at a casino during the potential exposure period does not mean that’s where they got the virus. Officials also haven’t made any definitive connections between a casino employee and a patron, county spokesperson Sarah Sweeney said.

Whether any of the cases amounted to a community outbreak is unknown.

Throughout the county, public health officials have identified 47 community outbreaks in the past week, with 17 of them reported on Wednesday. Since March 25, the county has recorded 406 outbreaks.

The state defines an outbreak at a workplace as three or more probable or confirmed COVID-19 cases that are linked but from different households. Outbreaks are one of 13 metrics local public health officials consider when setting reopening policies, along with case rates, hospitalizations, contact tracing and other factors.

County officials have generally refused to name any specific business or location when identifying community outbreaks, instead providing a running total and grouping them into categories such as restaurants, grocery stores and private residences. The Voice of San Diego, KPBS and The San Diego Union-Tribune have sued for the information.

In addition to excluding outbreaks on tribal lands, the county also excludes those on military land.

Even without counting any community outbreaks at casinos, the county for months has exceeded the threshold local public health officials set. They have said they could take action if more than seven new outbreaks occur within a week, regardless of other state metrics.

Despite consistently failing to meet the outbreak metric, the county hasn’t scaled back reopening even as the number of community outbreaks spike. Officials instead are relying on what the state weighs in its criteria: case rate and test positivity.

Casino employees get few COVID-19 details

Casinos have varied in their decisions to share COVID-19 case numbers with workers. 

Visitors walk through a temperature screening at the entrance to the Sycuan casino in East County, Aug. 14, 2020. (Zoë Meyers/inewsource)

Sycuan employees told inewsource they regularly receive reports about personnel who have tested positive and how many have recovered and returned to work. But employees at Harrah’s said they haven’t received any official communications and have only learned about possible cases through word of mouth or if a supervisor told them they had come into contact with someone who tested positive. 

A Harrah’s worker said he spoke with his wife about how they would quarantine away from each other in case he contracted the virus after working a busy Labor Day weekend.

“It’s not the kind of thing where I feel like I’m in immediate danger, but I definitely feel like my health has been compromised,” he said.

Tribes are generally protective of their data, including during the pandemic, said Vanesscia Cresci, research and public health director at the California Rural Indian Health Board

She said she knows tribal members in other areas of the country who have received racist backlash from surrounding communities after their COVID-19 cases were publicized. 

“We don’t publicly report it either because we are also very respectful of tribal sovereignty, and if they choose to report it that’s up to them,” Cresci said.

In response to the pandemic, the county has signed memorandums of understanding with three of the region’s 17 tribal governments: Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians, Pala Band of Mission Indians and Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians.

The three tribes and the county agreed to share information about infectious diseases and outbreaks. The agreements also name a public health officer for each tribe, one of whom is a fire chief, another a risk management director and another a tribal chairman.

A county spokesperson said officials expect to finalize agreements with all of the tribes.

Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is an investigative reporter at inewsource focused on growth and development in San Diego County’s backcountry. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists, and she's passionate about community service. Born in...

Jennifer Bowman is an investigative reporter at inewsource, covering mostly education. She’s happy to be back in her hometown after stints at daily newspapers in Michigan and North Carolina. At the Asheville Citizen Times, Jennifer’s award-winning coverage of yearslong corruption helped...