Bill proposes to reopen Navajo Nation casinos to tourists, visitors

Measure will be eligible for consideration starting June 20

Noel Lyn Smith
Farmington Daily Times
Flowing Water Casino in Hogback is one of two casinos under the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise that remain closed.

GALLUP — The four casinos operated by the Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise could reopen to tourists and visitors if the Navajo Nation Council and tribal President Jonathan Nez back new legislation seeking that move.

The tribe's casino operations shut down last spring over concerns about COVID-19 after the first cases of the new virus were reported on the tribal land.

In March, the Navajo Department of Health authorized the gaming enterprise to reopen the Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland and the Fire Rock Casino near Gallup.

The Flowing Water Casino in Hogback and the Twin Arrows Casino Resort near Flagstaff, Arizona, remain closed.

Both have been operating with safety protocols for the virus, such as screening customers and testing employees, as well as reducing occupancy and limiting hours of operation.

The bill states that a large part of revenue generated by the casinos comes from tourists and visitors, who are prohibited from the Navajo Nation under the public health emergency order signed on May 21 by officials from the Department of Health.

The measure proposes lifting that restriction, reopening the four casinos, and directing the facilities to continue COVID-19 safety measures issued by the Navajo Health Command Operations Center and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The former is the entity under the Department of Health that has been overseeing the tribe's response to the pandemic.

Northern Edge Casino in Upper Fruitland reopened its doors on March 19, 2021.

Brian Parrish, the gaming enterprise's interim CEO, said on June 15 that the enterprise leadership is grateful that Northern Edge and Fire Rock have reopened because it returned employees to work, demonstrates that the enterprise has "rock solid" COVID safety protocols in place, and is rebuilding the relationship between the enterprise and customers.

However, the ongoing closure of Flowing Water and Twin Arrows is keeping 40% of employees out of work, Parrish said.

He added that several employees at Twin Arrows have resigned because they found employment elsewhere since surrounding state governments are easing COVID restrictions for casinos and entertainment venues.

Another issue is that state governments are reducing unemployment benefits funded through federal coronavirus relief packages, which contribute to employees returning to the workforce elsewhere because Twin Arrows remains closed, he said.

"We're keeping our guys safe. We're trying to create an environment that protects the patrons as they come in. We got to be able to get Twin Arrows open though, so we stop losing our team members to relocation to Phoenix and get everybody back to work," Parrish said.

Delegate Rick Nez, who represents six chapters in the Northern Agency, is sponsoring the bill. It will be eligible for consideration starting June 20.

Nez is sponsoring a second bill to end the closure of the tribe's roads to tourists and visitors.

"We've demonstrated that we're safe. We're one of the very last casinos to be reopening anywhere in the U.S.," Parrish said. "We've got all the protocols that we'll continue to keep in place. Opening the roadways up and allowing nonresidents to travel back onto Navajo doesn't mean that our enterprise is going to relax our safety protocols. Matter of fact, we'd be increasing them."

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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