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Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise proposes reopening casinos

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
The Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland Chapter remains closed on Oct. 30.

FARMINGTON — Citing the need to protect 1,180 jobs, the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is seeking approval from the Navajo Nation Council to reopen its four casinos.

The reopening is the focus of a bill going to the council on Nov. 2.

According to the legislation, the gaming enterprise seeks to reopen casinos at 50% capacity and operate under stringent safety measures against the coronavirus.

The enterprise operates Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland, Flowing Water Casino in Hogback, Fire Rock Casino near Gallup and Twin Arrows Casino Hotel near Flagstaff. All have been closed since March 17.

The latest addition to the enterprise, Navajo Blue Travel Plaza, opened in September near the Twin Arrows Casino Hotel. The legislation requests the plaza operate at full capacity.

"The situation that we are facing is a very challenging one. As you know, we're a cash business. If we're closed, we generate zero revenue," Brian Parrish, the enterprise's interim CEO, said to the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee on Oct. 30.

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He explained the enterprise used all its remaining cash reserves and the amount left from the $24.6 million they received from the federal coronavirus relief bill – through an allocation approved by the council – will sustain them through Nov. 30.

"Our big concern is that we want to make sure we can reopen because we need to preserve these jobs and preserve the ability of our team members to be able to provide for themselves and their families," Parrish said.

The bill states that the enterprise was in "strong financial position" before the pandemic and was on track to pay off debt and able to fund new economic development projects.

Parrish added that if the enterprise were to shut down then try to reestablish in the future, restarting costs could range between $30 million to $35 million.

In a press release, the enterprise stated the casinos are "abundantly prepared" to safely reopen and have implemented "exhaustive precautionary guidelines" that exceed those under the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Navajo Department of Health.

A billboard along Navajo Route 36 advertises for Northern Edge Casino on Oct. 30. The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise is seeking to reopen its casinos in a legislation going before the Navajo Nation Council.

Those guidelines include how to address cases of COVID-19 among employees and handling customers who refuse to cooperate.

Parrish also explained that smoking will not be allowed in the casinos and there will be designated areas outside for smoking.

During the Oct. 30 meeting for the Naa'bik'íyáti' Committee, delegates expressed concern about reopening the facilities when new cases of COVID-19 are rising across the country.

After more than an hour of discussion, delegates voted 19 in favor and three opposed to table the bill.

Despite the tabling, the legislation continues to the council, where final authority rests. It is listed on the proposed agenda for a special session on Nov. 2.

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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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