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New look for Sonoma County’s Graton casino on reopening day June 18

Following Nevada’s lead, Graton Resort & Casino has reopened with a whole new look and feel to California gaming.

The federal casino operation closed in mid-March due to the COVID-19 crisis that prompted shelter-in-place orders by state and local governments.

“Smooth as can be -- perfect. (There were) no lines because we had all of our doors open and operating. People are glad to be back and having fun,” Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris said.

Nevada casinos reopened June 4 when Gov. Steve Sisolak relaxed restrictions. Much to the chagrin of California Gov. Gavin Newsom, some Indian gaming operations opened sooner, including two in the North Bay.

But Sarris told the Business Journal that he wanted to wait.

“We wanted the extra time. We wanted to create a safe situation that’s sustainable,” Sarris said.

Described as hospital grade–type disinfecting, “clean” is the operative word for the reopening of the 680,000-square-foot resort and casino.

The Rohnert Park casino, which opened in 2013, will undergo “around-the-clock” electrostatic spraying designed to kill viruses, bacteria and other pathogens. Every time dealers leave the tables, their cards, chips and whatever other high-touch objects will be cleaned off. Shift changes add to the cleaning protocol for handheld radios, cellphones and engineering tools.

Guests will find hand sanitizer stations placed throughout the casino, including the main floor, hotel lobby, restaurants, elevators and entrances for both patrons and employees. All 2,000 employees are returning, with the exception of 20 staffers over age 65 who chose not to, Sarris said. Twelve hundred were furloughed.

Above all changes, masks will be required.

“We’re going to be very strict about this,” Sarris said, adding he’s “beefed up” security to ensure guests follow the rules. There will be no exceptions.

Customers will have their temperatures read by thermal cameras. Anyone with a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit will be taken to a private area for a secondary screening to determine the first test’s accuracy. The scrutiny will also be given to prospective guests coughing profusely. If they fail the secondary screening, they won’t be allowed entry, according to Sarris.

Social distancing will be expected throughout the grounds, and guests will find many signs throughout the casino about that. High-roller areas have been divided to space these VIPs out.

“It’s going to be airy and light — especially on the gaming floor,” Sarris said. Half the slot machines have been deactivated. A maximum of four people may sit at each gaming, bar or restaurant table. Outside dining will also be available at casino eateries Tony’s and the Daily Grill.

“You’re not going to see crowds in bars, crowds in restaurants. It’s not going to be as fun, but it will be safe,” Sarris explained.

Like many other big entertainment venues up and down the state, no shows will return as of yet.

There are other exceptions to the welcome mat. During the initial re-opening, The Spa & Salon, hotel pool, fitness club, business center and valet service are temporarily suspended. Visitors will be required to park their own vehicles.

Casino closure has been hard and unique

“Without the lights, the place has been eerie. Security swears it sees ghosts. It’s like the ’Twilight Zone,’” Sarris said.

The tribal chairman couldn’t venture a guess on how the shutdown has hurt the casino’s bottom line, but he hinted it certainly brought about a hiccup in revenue.

“Obviously, we were closed for nearly three months. Our 2020 finances have been compromised; I can’t predict (to what extent); I just hope we get back on our feet,” he said, adding that’s he grateful to have “operated conservatively already.”

“I’m just happy people will have something to do now,” Sarris said of the opening.

Local law enforcement also welcomes the return.

“This pandemic, when it hit us, it hit us pretty hard. If the casino does it right (with the reopening), it could be a win-win for use,” Rohnert Park police Chief Tim Mattos said, adding Graton has been a good neighbor. “Our community and our residents need relief and a release. We’ll police like we need to and support them like we should.”

Bringing on the chi-ching

According to a 2018 report by Meister Economic Consulting for the American Gaming Association, Indian gaming operations account for $15 billion in annual tax revenue in 28 states. California Indian casinos rake in about a fifth of those collections, creating more than 124,000 jobs.

The industry has substantially grown since 1988, when the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act was passed.

Some states have not fared as well as California and Nevada this year. Experiencing turbulent times, Michigan announced the closure of 26 casinos costing that Midwestern region nearly $100 million in tax revenue during the three months of shutdowns, according to a new analysis by PlayMichigan.

The top of the heap in the gaming world, Nevada casinos reopened with a lengthy list of guidelines issued by the Nevada Gaming Control Board upon Gov. Steve Sisolak’s relaxed restrictions for reopening the Silver State. The standards for gaming operations for the state’s 1998 restricted and 459 nonrestricted licensees (categorized by size) match much of what Graton Rancheria is implementing.

Graton, which is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria and run by Station Casinos based in Las Vegas, is one of a few North Bay Indian casinos due to open.

Coyote Valley Casino, Redwood Valley

The Coyote Valley Band of Pomo Indians’ Mendocino County casino, which temporarily shuttered on March 18, reopened on June 1 without fanfare.

“We chose not to advertise that we were opening and just opened with word of mouth,” said Marc Bilodeau, general manager of Coyote Valley Casino. The casino has taken a careful approach to reopening, ensuring all systems put in place under new safety guidelines were working before an announcement was made. “We didn't want to be overwhelmed.”

Coyote Valley put the word out a week later, and business is picking up, Bilodeau said, though there are some familiar faces he hasn’t yet seen.

The 10,000-square-foot gaming facility has a total of 399 slot machines, eight table games and four poker tables. In keeping with social distancing, every other slot machine is closed, table games allow for a maximum of three players per table, and every other table will be closed. The poker room remains closed at this time.

When it comes to smoking sections — a conventional feature of casinos — visitors to Coyote Valley will have to vape or light up outside for now, Bilodeau said. Permanent rules will be made at a later time.

Another staple of casinos — operating around the clock — also is not the case at Coyote Valley these days. For now, the casino is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 a.m. to allow time for deep cleaning. The casino’s restaurants, self-service tap room and beverage stations remain closed. Food and drinks can be purchased at the casino’s snack bar.

“We’re in no rush to open up more areas,” Bilodeau said. “We're just trying to keep everything simple (and) for our staff as well.”

Since the statewide shelter-in-place order went into effect, Coyote Valley has gone from approximately 155 employees down to about 120.

“We’ve lost a fair chunk of the workforce because they're not comfortable being here, or they just don't want to come back,” Bilodeau said, adding the casino is hiring. Job opportunities are posted on Coyote Valley’s website (visitcoyotevalleycalifornia.com). The casino also has posted in-depth information about current operating procedures, which Bilodeau said will remain in place at least through June.

“We don't want to do anything quick and knee jerk. … We take safety seriously,” he said. “We’re going to see how it goes. Money is not the end of it all.”

River Rock Casino, Geyserville

River Rock Casino on June 16 posted to its website that it will reopen on June 29. Going forward, the Sonoma County casino will require all employees and visitors to wear masks, and have their temperatures checked at the door.

Anyone with a temperature higher than 100.4 degrees won’t be allowed inside the property, according to the web announcement. CEO David Fendrick did not respond to multiple requests for an interview.

According to River Rock’s web posting, spacing on the casino floor and between slot machines have been reconfigured for social distancing, and there will be limited seating at tables games. The 62,000-square-foot facility has more than 1,150 slot machines, including video poker and progressives, as well as 18 table games.

River Rock has three eating establishments on-site: a full-course buffet, an open-air restaurant in the center of the casino, and a café serving Asian cuisine. The status of the restaurants upon the casino’s reopening isn’t known.

In addition, the casino’s website stated that “extensive cleaning processes” are in place and hand-sanitizing stations will be located throughout the property.

The Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, which owns and operates River Rock Casino, temporarily closed the casino on March 18. The gaming facility first opened in September 2002.

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