Oklahoma casinos try to stay safe and open as pandemic continues

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As COVID-19 cases continue to rise, one industry is keeping a close watch – Indian Gaming. Casinos have been trying to stay open while keeping their employees and patrons safe but what will the future hold?

Like many entertainment-based industries, Indian gaming here in Oklahoma was hit hard by the pandemic, initially, and just as they are getting back on their feet, here comes another wave of COVID.

“Every game got cleaned just about as soon as somebody would get up,” said Casey Jones of the Creek Nation’s Okemah Casino.

The Oklahoma casino manger is talking about measures to deal with COVID so gaming could get back online.

“In March of 2020, we shut down every casino in Oklahoma in a matter of four days,” said Matthew Morgan of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

(AP file /John Locher, FIle)

Many casinos stayed closed for 45 days until safety protocols were established. Most have now found a new normal and casinos getting back on their feet financially.

For the first time in two years, the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association is holding their annual convention at the new Downtown Oklahoma City Convention Center this week.

Of course, the latest in games, both table and electronic, were on display, but this year, sanitizers and air filtration systems had a much bigger presence.

“Cleaning, disinfecting, its top of mind awareness right now,” said Chris Schultheis of Midwest Pathogend.

Industry officials say it’s important as COVID cases are on the rise to do all they can to stay open as some 75,000 jobs in our state are tied to tribal gaming.

“For so many tribal communities in Oklahoma, for so many rural communities, the casinos and the tribal governments are the economic life blood of the communities,” said Morgan.

“We can’t just hope it goes away, we have to keep practicing social distancing, safety protocol and looking out for one another,” said Ernest L. Stevens of the National Indian Gaming Association.

Now, the head of Indian gaming for the entire country is well aware of a fight that has been brewing between the tribes and Gov. Kevin Stitt. The pandemic has put a halt to a lot of bickering over tribes paying increased fees as part of new gaming compacts, but it’s still on a lot of minds.

“Tribal leadership has been at the table all along, ready to have productive conversations, but there has to be conversations based on mutual respect, and when that respect is not present for them, it’s hard to have a productive conversations,” said Morgan.

“We have been very successful at it and we are going to keep doing that, and no one person is going to stand in our way,” said Stevens.

The Governor’s Office declined comment on the status of negotiation with the tribes.

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