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Michigan tribal casinos to reopen while Detroit's gaming houses must stay closed

Tony Paul Keith Laing
The Detroit News

Four of the state's 12 federally recognized tribes on Tuesday announced plans to start reopening their casinos, seven in all, some perhaps as early as the end of this week.

They are able to do so despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's order that casinos stay closed through at least June 12 as part of her COVID-19 stay-at-home order. That's because gaming at tribal casinos does not fall under state regulation, according to Mary Kay Bean, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Gaming Control Board.

"They are regulated by their own gaming commissions and under federal law," she said.  

FILE - Firekeepers Casino in Battle Creek is one of seven casinos owned by federally recognized tribes that announced plans to reopen before Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's stay-home order expries.

Among the seven casinos are Firekeepers in Battle Creek, Soaring Eagle's two properties in Mount Pleasant, Gun Lake in Wayland, Bay Mills in Brimley, Kings Club in Bay Mills and Saganing Eagles Landing in Standish.

The casinos are operated by four tribes: Bay Mills Indian Community, Gun Lake Tribe, Nottawaseppi Huron Band of Potawatomi and Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe.

Previously, Leelanau Sands in Peshawbestown and Turtle Creek in Williamsburg announced plans to open their doors starting Friday.

The state's casino industry, which includes 25 gaming halls, shut down in mid-March amid the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. That includes Detroit's three casinos, MGM Grand, Greektown and MotorCity, as well as the 23 tribal casinos.

The tribal casinos technically shut down voluntarily; the Detroit casinos were ordered shut down as part of the state's series of executive orders.

Kathy George, CEO of FireKeepers Casino Hotel, defended the decision to reopen,, saying the facility has been deemed essential by its tribal council. 

"They deemed us  an essential business for the survival of the tribe," she said. "We're going to be following the CDC guidelines obviously." 

Jeff Morris, vice president of public affairs at Penn National Gaming Inc., which operates the Greektown Casino-Hotel in Detroit, said his company's facility will remain closed for the time being.

"The safety and well-being of our team members and customers is our top priority," he said. "With this in mind, we continue to work closely with the Michigan Gaming Control Board and state and local leaders to develop comprehensive plans to prepare for the eventual reopening of Greektown.  We look forward to sharing our property-specific health and safety protocols once they’ve received final approval from the Board." 

With the casino shutdown now over two months, Detroit's casinos have lost several hundred million dollars in revenue, costing the state and city significant tax dollars.

Gun Lake Casino in Wayland is among Michigan's tribal casinos that will begin reopening Friday.

The tribal casinos announced Tuesday a series of safety measures. Among them: limiting capacity, checking the temperature of every guest before entrance, requiring staff to wear masks and gloves, limiting the slot machines available, increased cleaning procedures, and reducing food and beverage service.

Capacity at Leelanau Sands, for instance, will be 125, and at Turtle Creek it will be 350.

At Firekeepers, which opens June 1, guests must provide and wear their own masks, smoking is prohibited, and the parking garage and valet parking will remain closed, among other safety measures.

Some of the casinos will be doing "soft" openings to test their protocols. Guests are encouraged to check the casinos' websites for updated information.

The tribal casinos said they will continue monitor health information from the state and federal government.

“Just as the state consults health professionals and experts in various fields, we also have experts and professionals advising the tribes and guiding our efforts,” Bob Peters, chairman of the Gun Lake Tribe Tribal Council, said in Tuesday's statement. “We make these decisions and implement these procedures with the best evidence and knowledge provided to us.”

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984