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'Slammed': Many California Casinos Are Still Open, and Some Workers Are Worried

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crowded poker rooom with full tables
A crowded indoor poker room at Graton Resort and Casino in Rohnert Park in late December 2020. Casinos on tribal lands in California are not required to adhere to statewide COVID-19 orders. (Courtesy of Graton Casino and Resort employee)

As California continues to grapple with a worsening winter surge of COVID-19 cases, some businesses remain able to operate outside the purview of state shutdown orders aimed to protect public health during the pandemic. Tribal resorts and casinos in California operate under federal law on federally protected sovereign land known as rancherias – so they're not required to comply with orders issued by Gov. Newsom or county officials.

The Graton Resort and Casino, located on tribal land in Rohnert Park, came under criticism for announcing that it would host a 4,000-person New Year's Eve party. After a public-shaming, the Sonoma County casino canceled the event last week and "apologized for any inconvenience" in a statement online.

Sonoma County Public Health Officer Sundari Mase recently told ABC7 News the department was working with the casino to mitigate risk, "in terms of limiting indoor capacity to 20% of what's normal, in terms of enforcing facial coverings or masks and social distancing."

But the casino may not be adhering to that 20% capacity threshold, according to some employees who say their employer's practices make them fear for their safety.

“At a poker table, we're sitting seven players, plus a dealer. That's eight people sitting at a table that's 6 feet long,” said an employee of the Graton Resort and Casino who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job.

The employee, who has worked there for several years, told KQED the casino was “slammed” the last week of December. As the coronavirus surged through the state and regional businesses limited their capacity or shut down entirely, poker players continued traveling to the few places still open.

"They all started traveling up here,” he said, adding that many players are traveling over two hours to spend the day playing poker. “We're sitting with these people for eight hours a day. They're playing 10, 12 hours a day in the same room with the same seats, the same people."

While players are required to have masks on inside and cannot eat at the poker table, they're allowed to smoke and can sit in the food court and eat.

“It's scary ... I don't even understand why we're open, honestly,” he said. But he added that the holidays are one of the biggest times for business and the poker room had every available seat filled on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday over the Christmas holiday.

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"The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria continue to work closely with the Sonoma County Public Health Officer," said Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria in an emailed statement to KQED. The casino will remain open "on a limited basis and [it] continues to exceed all CDC safety requirements," the statement said, adding that team members are tested for COVID-19 every two weeks and that they wear "digital devices that ensure social distancing." The statement also said casino bars will continue to remain closed, and alcohol service ends at 9 p.m.

One of the elements of the CDC's guidance is to "maintain safe behavioral practices," which includes social distancing of 6 feet. But as evidenced by images sent by the employee, social distancing is nearly impossible at a poker table.

“Many of us are scared for our families and community,” the employee said.

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With the most recent surge, as someone who is constantly thinking about numbers, the employee said it’s hard to avoid thinking about the potential impact.

“We in the poker industry, we're math people — we're statistics people,” he said. “I can't help but think about California's positivity rate — 2% to 3% right now. And if you apply that to 105 people [the poker room capacity], statistically two to three people in that room are positive at any given point.”

On Jan. 1, 2021 a new California law, Assembly Bill 685, went into effect. The law requires employers to notify employees who may have been exposed to COVID-19 and to report workplace outbreaks to the local health department. It also expands the power of California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health by allowing Cal/OSHA to shut down worksites that expose employees to an “imminent hazard” related to COVID-19. But Cal/OSHA would not have the authority to shut down any work site on tribal land, as those lands fall outside state jurisdiction.

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