Graton casino cancels New Year’s Eve event after county pressure over 4,000-person gathering

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Graton Resort and Casino on Thursday abruptly called off plans to host a large indoor private New Year’s Eve event that had come under county scrutiny and sparked public outcry against the holiday gathering during a regional pandemic stay-home order. County officials said they understood it was to involve up to 4,000 people.

Greg Sarris, tribal chairman for the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the casino’s owner, announced the cancellation on his personal Facebook page. He said the casino, the Bay Area’s largest, would instead close at 5 p.m. on New Year’s Eve “for all activities.”

“All parties and gatherings on New Year’s Eve have been canceled,” his post read. “The casino will reopen on 1/1/21 at 6:00 a.m.”

He offered no details in the brief statement on what drove the sudden change in course and did not specify if it was his decision as chairman or that of the tribal council.

Multiple requests to interview Sarris, made Thursday through the casino’s public relations firm and his executive assistant, went unaddressed. A spokeswoman for the tribe emailed the same written statement posted to Sarris’ Facebook page and said no further information would be released.

Graton Rancheria is a sovereign nation not subject to county or state public health orders, including measures that for months have limited indoor gatherings to no more than 12 people to reduce the risk of viral transmissions. County officials noted the limits of their authority on Wednesday when they publicly questioned the timing of the event and the potential risks for spreading the coronavirus.

On Thursday, they said they were grateful and relieved the event had been canceled.

“I think they heard the negative criticism, they took that into consideration and they changed their mind,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt. “I think when people change their mind, when they sit back and listen to other points of view, that’s a good thing. I do really appreciate them pulling back.”

Rabbitt, whose district includes the casino just east of Rohnert Park, said he did not know about the scheduled event until reading about it on social media a couple days before news broke Wednesday. He said he didn’t inquire about it with county staff until Thursday morning. He declined to say if he had spoken with Sarris and said he was unaware if Gov. Gavin Newsom or someone acting on his behalf had intervened.

“Well, they weren’t asking for permission, so just me calling to see if it was happening wouldn’t be different in any regard,” Rabbitt said. “If the state can’t tell them no, what is the county going to do without having any agreement? There are certain jurisdictional boundaries which I know for many people is frustrating, but that’s just the way it is and the way the law has been set up for many, many years.”

County officials said Wednesday they understood as many as 4,000 people might attend the event, representing 20% of the casino’s maximum capacity under normal conditions, according to the county. The tribal spokeswoman declined to specify the casino’s capacity — for the New Year’s event or during regular operations before the pandemic.

The event notice had been up on the casino’s website for days, but by 1:30 p.m. Thursday it had been removed. It did not specify the involved guests, and county and casino officials did not elaborate Wednesday or Thursday on who the event had been planned for.

But multiple sources familiar with casino operations told The Press Democrat that it was scheduled for casino VIPs, as well as platinum-tier rewards club members, which requires gambling about $300,000 within a six-month period.

The casino voluntarily shut down during the first three months of the pandemic, but it reopened in June and has been operating, albeit at limited capacity, ever since, including an around-the-clock schedule during the latest stay-home order.

Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer, who has issued regular warnings on the risks of large gatherings, especially in indoor spaces, reiterated Thursday that she had no enforcement authority over the casino, which operates under a state compact controlled by the governor.

“They are federally regulated and they do speak with the state on a regular basis,” Mase said. “We have no jurisdiction on tribal land, so I don’t really think we have the ability to have any say in how they do what they’re doing.”

Still, Mase and Paul Gullixson, the county’s communications manager, held a Zoom call Wednesday afternoon with Lana Rivera, the casino’s vice president and general manager, to discuss the event and what measures the casino would be taking to reduce spread of COVID-19.

Both Mase and Gullixson reiterated Thursday their preference that the planned event not go forward.

“Clearly Sonoma County and the community and those who come to our county are of concern to us, so we wanted to offer support to Graton casino. We could offer them our support, our resources, our guidance and make sure that they were fully going to employ mitigation measures,” Mase said.

“We had a positive interaction, left on a positive note and it sounds like they made a decision,” she added.

The casino’s daily draw of patrons and its plans to hold a special holiday event struck some observers as clearly out of step with local pandemic public health orders.

Arthur Deicke of Santa Rosa said he passes by the casino nearly every workday when leaving the office of his nearby environmental consulting firm. He said he sees full parking lots and rows of shuttle buses.

“I’m concerned. I think it could be a super-spreader event,” Deicke said, speaking generally of casino operations and the large numbers of guests from across the Bay Area. “They’re coming to this concentrated facility that allows masses of people to accumulate together, which opposes CDC guidance and opposes county guidance on having people together. It’s bringing people in from my community and doing it, and that’s what bothers me.”

Public health officials this week said that 91 confirmed COVID-19 cases had been linked to casinos operating in Sonoma County. In addition to Graton, which has a 320,000-square-foot Las Vegas-style gambling floor, the Dry Creek Band of Pomo Indians owns and operates the River Rock Casino near Geyserville.

Of those 91 cases, 78 were employees and the remainder were identified as community members, meaning either guests or members of their households.

Several county officials said they were unaware of the Graton casino’s New Year’s Eve event until news broke Wednesday.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who maintains a close relationship with Sarris, said by text message Thursday she knew “absolutely nothing about this party.” She did not respond to follow-up requests for an interview.

Supervisor-elect Chris Coursey, who will succeed Zane on Jan. 5, said he was happy to hear of the cancellation. He encouraged all residents to remain vigilant and avoid gatherings of any size to help stem the coronavirus spread as the region awaits more vaccines.

“I think it’s the right thing to do,” Coursey said. “I understand, recognize and respect sovereignty, but the virus does not. And the only way to get through this thing is if we act as a community and as a country and really as a planet, regardless of borders or anything else. We have to do this together.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Santa Rosa resident Arthur Deicke’s last name.

Staff Writer Martin Espinoza contributed to this report. Staff Writer Kevin Fixler is available at 707-521-5336 or On Twitter @kfixler.

Track coronavirus cases in Sonoma County, across California, the United States and around the world here.

For more stories about the coronavirus, go here.