While much of California is in lockdown mode with many businesses ordered to close as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations surge, the nine casinos on tribal lands in San Diego County remain open.

They began reopening in May with safety rules, including mask-wearing and social distancing, and have gradually increased operations to include more gaming, dining and events. But with the uptick in coronavirus cases, some of the casinos are voluntarily tightening health measures and canceling or postponing some events. 

At least one, Harrah’s in Valley Center, has issued paperwork to its employees saying the Rincon tribe has deemed them essential workers exempt from the county’s curfew and stay-at-home order.

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 state and county health regulations that ordered other businesses remain closed.

The casinos, which employ tens of thousands of people and generate revenue for tribal government services, aren’t subject to state and county health orders because they are under the jurisdiction of sovereign tribes.

County health officials, however, continue to track coronavirus cases with links to visiting casinos. They report 589 local residents say they visited a casino in the 14 days before testing positive for the virus or before the onset of COVID-19 symptoms. The figures are from June 5 through Dec. 12, and include 210 since Nov. 15.

The number is higher than those who said they went to gyms, but lower than those who said they went to bars and restaurants, barbershops and salons, or places of worship, all of which have had to adapt to stay-at-home restrictions California imposed on the county just before midnight on Dec. 7.

Juliet Morrison, a virologist and assistant professor at the University of California Riverside, described going to a casino as a “high-risk activity” made riskier by the length of time spent indoors, crowds, and the spotty use of masks when eating, drinking or smoking.

“There’s no way anyone could convince me to go gamble at this point in time,” Morrison said. “It’s just too high risk.”

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

Employees at two North County casinos, Harrah’s Resort Southern California and Pala Spa Casino Resort, said they’ve received no official communication about infections at their workplaces and they’re concerned about working in close quarters with others. An employee at Sycuan Casino Resort in East County said the casino continues to provide coronavirus case numbers to staff. inewsource agreed not to name the workers because they feared losing their jobs.

One worker at Harrah’s described “fairly bare-bones staffing” exacerbated by employees being asked to stay home because of potential exposure to COVID-19 at work.

“This is particularly troubling because they’re not communicating it clearly, and a number of my co-workers have pre-existing health conditions such as cancer, heart problems, diabetes,” the employee said.

The former general manager at Harrah’s sued his employer, Caesars Entertainment Inc., in August claiming he was forced to resign after management ignored his concerns that the decision to reopen was dangerous and could expose visitors to COVID-19.

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

Whether any of the cases tied to casinos amounted to a community outbreak is not publicly known. San Diego County isn’t disclosing if outbreaks have originated at casinos because they are on sovereign tribal lands. In only rare instances does the county name other locations with outbreaks, and news outlets have sued — so far unsuccessfully — to get that information made public.

Riverside County has traced six outbreaks to four of its nine tribal casinos, whose names it isn’t disclosing. The county monitors “casinos like we do other businesses through our contact tracing and disclose outbreaks (three or more associated cases) in general terms,” county spokesman Jose Arballo Jr. said in an email.

inewsource emailed or called San Diego County’s nine casinos for this story. Officials declined to comment, referred us to their websites or did not respond.

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Sycuan lists some new measures that started Dec. 4, including the discontinuation of drinking and smoking at table games. It also canceled its December events and postponed all concerts and events through the first quarter of next year.

Barona Resort & Casino in Lakeside has discontinued gameside dining, according to a Dec. 7 update on its website, and is not holding a New Year’s Eve event.

Jamul Casino is curtailing some of its entertainment activities and increasing safety protocols, according to an online update by President and General Manager Mary Cheeks. She said the measures were taken “in the spirit of cooperation.”

Pala announced on Dec. 3 that it would provide free, by-appointment COVID-19 and antibody testing to the public at a nearby testing facility. Sycuan also has a free testing site. Pala has not canceled indoor concerts, which are scheduled through January.

Harrah’s plans to stay open with normal operating hours, according to a Dec. 5 memo General Manager Robert Livingston wrote to employees. 

The Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians owns the casino. Tribal Chairman Bo Mazzetti signed a formal resolution on Dec. 2 declaring the casino an essential business “because it supports the economy and infrastructure” of the tribe, the memo said. Employees also were given a letter to present to public safety officials if they were stopped on their way to work. 

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In May, Sheriff Bill Gore had threatened to restrict access to tribal lands from county roads in an effort to get the casinos to remain closed but never did. 

Sheriff’s Lt. Ricardo Lopez, the department’s spokesman, told inewsource he isn’t aware of any barricades related to the public health orders and the department is not conducting “checkpoints.” He also said people aren’t required to carry paperwork that identifies them as essential workers.

A state public health spokesperson said officials have been communicating with tribal leaders throughout the pandemic and continue to do so in light of the recent stay-home order and surge in infections. The county health department invites tribal nation leaders to conference calls and cooperates on investigating cases of mutual interest, a spokesperson said.

The National Indian Gaming Commission can issue temporary closure notices to tribal casinos if they don’t meet health and safety rules. But Michael Anderson, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents tribal governments with gaming operations in California, said he didn’t know of any enforcement actions taken toward tribal casinos related to COVID-19.

He views the tribal casinos in California as “following the industry” rather than being an exception, with commercial casinos across the country, including in Las Vegas, remaining open with some restrictions.

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...