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Navajo Nation Council gives green light to reopen casinos

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times

GALLUP — The Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise's plan to reopen casinos received support from the Navajo Nation Council on Nov. 2.

Delegates voted 15 in favor and eight opposed to pass the legislation during a special session. 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.

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.

An electronic sign at the entrance of Flowing Water Casino in Hogback tells visitors on March 24 that the facility is closed.

Although the bill cleared the council, it still needs to go to tribal President Jonathan Nez for his consideration. He will have 10 calendar days to sign or veto the resolution after it is submitted to his office.

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It has been seven months since the gaming enterprise closed the Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland, Flowing Water Casino in Hogback, Fire Rock Casino near Gallup and Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, to help slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Gaming enterprise officials have said the casinos must reopen to save approximately 1,280 jobs – a mixture of those at the facilities and in the Navajo Nation Gaming Regulatory Office – and to avoid permanent closure by Nov. 30.

Brian Parrish, the enterprise's interim CEO, said a permanent closure would have a ripple effect on financial commitments, including loan agreements and joint investments with other tribal enterprises.

Barriers block vehicle access to Fire Rock Casino near Gallup on March 30.

Under the enterprise's proposal, each casino would reopen at a minimum 50% capacity while its newest addition, the Navajo Blue Travel Plaza near Flagstaff, would operate at full capacity.

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Parrish reiterated the enterprise has developed a comprehensive safety plan that follows guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state health departments in Arizona and New Mexico, the National Indian Gaming Commission and other federal entities.

"This plan is extremely comprehensive, and it covers testing, reporting, contract tracing, protocols in every single area of the operation," Parrish said.

Delegate Carl Slater was among those who opposed the legislation.

"Particularly, what's concerning for me is reading reports that emphasize that we're starting to see our ICU bed availability go dramatically down due to these rising cases. To me, my fear is that we will overwhelm our health care system," Slater said.

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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