Lawmakers on the Navajo Nation approved legislation Monday to reopen the tribe’s four casinos in Arizona and New Mexico.
The properties have been closed since March. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise got the approval from the Navajo Nation Council to reopen them at a minimum 50% capacity later this month, but it still needs to be cleared by Navajo President Jonathan Nez, who has 10 days to act on the legislation once it reaches him. He has not indicated whether or not he’ll support it, the Associated Press reports.
Delegates voted 15 in favor and eight opposed to pass the legislation during a special session Monday. Those who opposed the measure cited worries over the recent rise in new daily cases of COVID-19. Jill Jim, director of the Navajo Department of Health, told the council that the tribe is in a second surge of COVID-19 cases, as reported by Farmington Daily Times. She added that the reopening of casinos is classified in the green phase of the tribe's reopening plan, meaning there must be less than one case per 100,000 individuals before casinos can resume operations.
The casinos employ nearly 1,200 people, most of whom are Navajo. They have been on paid administrative leave. The gambling enterprise has used federal Paycheck Protection Program funding and a share of the tribe’s coronavirus relief funding to stay afloat.
“Our concern is that if we’re unable to reopen, we’re going to be forced into a situation where we would no longer have the cash reserves to be able to open again at some point in the near future,” the enterprise’s interim chief executive, Brian Parrish, told lawmakers.
The enterprise also wants to fully open a new travel center east of Flagstaff adjacent to its Twin Arrows Casino Resort. The tribe’s other three casinos are in northwestern New Mexico.
Parrish said the enterprise has drawn up a health and safety plan in line with recommendations from tribal and federal health experts. It includes social distancing, no smoking, partitions, hand sanitizer and face shields. Safety isn’t guaranteed, but Parrish said employees and patrons will be safer at the casinos than other places off the reservation.
Tribal health officials reported 47 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Monday and three additional deaths. The latest figures bring the total number of reported cases to 11,875 and death toll to 584 since the pandemic began. Tribal health officials said 126,331 people on the vast reservation that covers parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah have been tested for COVID-19 since the pandemic started and 7,568 have recovered.
A shelter-in-place order, mask mandate, daily curfews and weekend lockdowns remain in effect on the Navajo Nation. Jill Jim said the tribe was doing well in September but has been seeing close to 100 new cases per day lately. The tribe also is in need of more contact tracers, she said. “We’re all at uncontrolled spread," she said.