SHOALWATER BAY INDIAN RESERVATION — A software upgrade will allow the Shoalwater Bay Casino to reopen and create social distance between players, without having to remove any machines.

On May 22, Willapa Bay Enterprise, the business arm of the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, announced the casino would reopen Friday, May 29. The decision came a few days after the Puyallup, Suquamish, Squaxin Island and Nisqually tribes all reopened their casinos.

While the Shoalwater Bay Casino is taking similar safety precautions to the other tribes, such as temperature checks at the entrance and requiring guests to wear masks, it also put into place an innovative safeguard.

CasinoTrac, Shoalwater Bay’s casino management system, updated its software to cause games to go out of service on either side of an active player. This prevents people from sitting next to each other while playing. When a player is done with the game, the machines on either side return to service, while the game that was just played turns off until an employee can disinfect it.

Shoalwater Bay Casino General Manager Johnny Winokur said his casino was the only one in Washington with this technology. Winokur proudly touted the new software at a mock reopening training on Friday, May 22. Standing in his truck bed with his employees spread out in the casino’s parking lot, Winokur explained how the games would work, as well as the casino’s new admittance protocols.

‘Gamble with your money, not your life’

Employees stood six-feet apart as they waited in line at the casino door. One-by-one people entered the first set of doors, stepping onto a squishy blue mat to disinfect their shoes. Then, an employee stationed behind plexiglass used a no touch-thermal scanner to check the person’s temperature. Each person was given masks and gloves if they didn’t have them. Only then were they allowed to go through the second set of doors and into the casino.

Masks are mandatory, gloves are mandatory and people who don’t want to wear them will not be allowed in the building, Winokur said.

“I want my team to live and I want them to go home at night knowing they’re secure, and I want my guests to be well taken care of,” Winokur said.

As employees filed into the casino, Winokur could be heard over a loudspeaker reminding them about the rules.

“Social distancing in here too is required,” Winokur said. “It’s mandatory. Social distancing is mandatory.”

To help enforce this, when the facility reopens capacity will be reduced to 150 guests at a time. That limitation will last until the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe lifts its covid-19 state of emergency.

Signs are everywhere throughout the casino to remind people about social distancing, hand washing and directing them through the casino. Controlling traffic flow will be essential to prevent people being crammed up next to one another, said Todd Arend, Shoalwater Bay Casino Marketing Manager.

Smoking in the casino will also be banned for the foreseeable future. This ban mirrors other tribally owned casinos, such as the Angel of the Winds Casino Resort, owned by the Stillaguamish Tribe. Angel of the Winds reopened on May 13 and was the first casino in Western Washington to do so.

Shoalwater Bay is going above and beyond what is required by Washington State and the Washington Indian Gaming Association, according to a news release from the tribe.

“My favorite sign that we have put up in this whole place is, ‘Gamble with your money, not your life, gloves and masks required,’” Arend said.

That says it all, he said.

Hand sanitizer stations are installed throughout the casino floor. Plexiglass stood between employees and guests in places such as the guest services area, the bar and the cafe’s salad bar and drink area. Also, the cafe will no longer be self-serve.

About every seven minutes someone should be sanitizing both bathrooms, Arend said.

This is a concern for everyone’s wellbeing, and it is that concern that drove many of the casino’s new protocols. Preparing to reopen has been stressful, Arend said. As a 56-year-old, Arend is aware of the risk to him personally.

“I’m a fat old guy that likes to smoke cigarettes,” Arend said.

But, people are clamoring to get back in here, Arend said. Other casinos have seen hour-long lines on opening day, he said. Shoalwater wanted to meet the demand in the safest way possible, and Arend said he believes the casino achieved that.

To help reduce crowds on the first day, the tribe will be holding soft openings in the three days leading up May 29. These will be invitation only. Arend made a list of his top 225 local players and invited 75 per night to come and play. Each invitee will be allowed to bring one guest.

“We are a locals’ casino,” Arend said. “Our lights are on because of the great people of Westport, Grayland, Raymond, South Bend, everybody down on the peninsula, Menlo, Bay Center, I mean we have two months a year where we have some tourists, but our locals are great to us.”

Tribal needs

Throughout the closure, the casino continued to pay its employees at the same rate and for the same amount of hours as if the casino was still open. That was a financial commitment Winokur made from day one, Arend said.

Still, the business’s closure didn’t just affect its employees. In a news release about the reopening, Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe Chairperson Charlene Nelson said gaming revenue is a primary way that tribal governments fund essential services and services for its surrounding communities. Essential services include education, social services and law enforcement.

Critical funding has been depleted by the coronavirus pandemic closures, the tribe wrote in its news release.

Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe Tribal Administrator Jesse Downs said revenue from the casino as well as gaming license rentals are a large portion of the tribe’s revenue. Tribes are more limited than other governments on how they can generate revenues for essential services, Downs said.

“It might seem a little strange that we’re choosing to open the casino now, but it really is a unique situation that is very unique to tribes that is born out of the fact that we are more limited,” Downs said.

The county is at a point where it is not being hit in the same way as other parts of the state, so the risk of community spread is relatively low, Downs said. Plus, the tribe and county are better prepared to react to any new cases, because health officials know more about the virus.

The tribe has systems in place to react quickly to anything that may change, Downs said. Jim Bergstrom, chief of police for the Shoalwater Bay Indian Tribe, is acting Emergency Management Director. He has the authority to shut the casino down if anything goes wrong.

Clocking in

Jo Bishop is a bartender at the casino and has worked there for about a year. Being together with other employees for the training was really exciting, she said.

“We’re all like a family,” Bishop said.

Winokur gets calls from guests wanting to return to the casino, but also from employees who want to return to work, Downs said.

“I know that I’m ready to go back to work for me personally,” Downs said. “Life has to go back to some kind of normalcy at some point. Being locked in your house is not good in the long term.”

This is giving people a way to safely recreate and enjoy their lives, Downs said.

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