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Ute Mountain Casino Hotel reopens with safety measures in place

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

TOWAOC, Colorado — During the five months the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel has been closed, it has undergone thorough cleaning and put into effect enhanced safety measures to welcome back guests.

"We've been sanitizing and cleaning and shampooing for five months," General Manager Rick Scheer said of the facility, which houses the 90-room hotel, casino, restaurant and gift shop.

Scheer talked on Aug. 19 about reopening the establishment, an enterprise of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, during the soft opening for tribal members that day. It opened to the public on Aug. 20.

The process to reopen was a mixed bag of following regulations, utilizing guidelines for public health and safety standards and communicating with other casino operators nationwide about best methods and practices for operating in a COVID-19 world, Scheer said.

Some of the recommendations the establishment is following come from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Indian Gaming Commission.

Slot machines inside the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel will undergo frequent cleaning as part of COVID-19 safety measures. The facility in Towaoc, Colorado reopened to Ute Mountain Ute tribal members on Aug. 19 then to the public the next day.

"A lot of the guidance is coming out of the CDC. We've been communicating with a lot of our peers throughout the country. We've adopted a lot of what we felt were very good practices," he said.

Among the steps taken to ensure safety are enhanced cleaning protocols throughout the facility, a requirement for guests and employees to wear face masks, limiting entrances to the building, temperature checks for everyone and operating as a non-smoking facility.

The capacity of the hotel, casino and gift shop was reduced to 30% and the hours of operation are from 8 a.m. to midnight each day.

Ute Mountain Casino Hotel General Manager Rick Scheer answers his phone on Aug. 19 inside the hotel lobby in Towaoc, Colorado.

Several slot machines have been turned off to ensure that customers keep physical distance from each other and the number of seats per table game is limited to three.

Elvena Light, assistant hotel manager, said staff have been trained on COVID-19 safety and sanitation protocols and rooms have been decluttered, including the removal of items like coffee makers and artificial plants.

After a room is cleaned and inspected, a seal is placed over the keycard lock until a guest enters, Light added.

The facility is also cleaned by electrostatic sprayers, which deliver disinfectant solutions to the front, back and sides of surfaces.

Closing the hotel and casino on March 18 was recommended by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribal Council and in response to the new coronavirus and to support the tribe's prevention efforts, according to a March 24 press release from the enterprise.

The Ute Mountain Casino Hotel is pictured on Aug. 19 in Towaoc, Colorado. The facility reopened to Ute Mountain Ute tribal members that day then to the public on Aug. 20.

Tribal Treasurer Alston Turtle announced on Aug. 17 in an online video briefing that the tribe has 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Of those cases, 19 people have recovered, seven cases are active and there have been two deaths related to the disease, Turtle said.

Scheer called the reopening "a business decision" based on economics and the need to keep staff members employed.

None of the estimated 400 employees were laid off during the closure, but some have left for other employment opportunities, he said, adding that workers were on paid furlough and the operation received a loan from the Paycheck Protection Program under the U.S. Small Business Administration.

While Ute Mountain Casino Hotel returns to operations, other casinos in the Four Corners area remain closed.

Guidelines are outlined on complimentary personal safety items inside a hotel room on Aug. 19 at the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc, Colorado.

The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is keeping its four casinos, including Northern Edge in Upper Fruitland and Flowing Water in Hogback, closed through Aug. 31.

"As the first tribal casino to close on March 17, 2020, and possibly the last to reopen, Navajo Nation Gaming will offer 'best-in-class' safety measures and a 'trusted-space' environment for our patrons and team members when it is safe to reopen," Quincy Natay, the Navajo gaming enterprise board chairman, said in a press release.

Closed until further notice are SunRay Park and Casino, located between Farmington and Bloomfield; Sky Ute Casino Resort, operated in Ignacio, Colorado by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe; and the Jicarilla Apache Nation's Wild Horse Casino in Dulce and the casino inside Apache Nugget Travel Center near Cuba.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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The seal of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe is seen on Aug. 19 near the south entrance to the Ute Mountain Casino Hotel in Towaoc, Colorado.