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Tribes say they'll start phased reopening of casinos June 1

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Defying the wishes of Gov. Ned Lamont and some of his advisers, the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes jointly announced Wednesday that they will start a phased reopening of their respective casinos June 1, initially targeting only Connecticut and Rhode Island patrons.

“We’ve got to talk again. I think that’s incredibly risky,” Lamont said during his daily news conference on the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. “It’s risky for the people who work at the casinos, it’s risky for the people who go to the casinos, it’s risky for the region because you have a lot of employees who go back out to the region.”

“I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that we put public health first,” he said.

Later in the briefing, the governor acknowledged that aside from the persuasiveness he can exert from his “bully pulpit,” there’s not much he can do to impose his will on the sovereign tribes, which are not bound by his edicts.

Lamont referenced remarks made the previous day by Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, who advised the governor’s Reopen Connecticut Advisory Group. Emanuel had said the state should be hesitant to reopen businesses that pose serious health risks while providing little economic benefit, prompting a response from Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman, calling Ezekiel’s remarks “profoundly offensive and uninformed.”

The Mashantuckets own Foxwoods.

“Just two weeks ago, we made the gut-wrenching decision at Foxwoods to lay off more than 4,000 employees, members of our Pequot family, both literally and figuratively,” Butler said. “One need only look at the tragic map depicting the disproportionate share of unemployed in eastern and southeastern Connecticut to begin to understand Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun’s economic impact. Our unemployment crisis is Connecticut’s crisis just as our success is Connecticut’s success.”

Both casinos, which share their slot-machine revenues with the state, closed March 17, choosing to heed Lamont’s order that nonessential businesses shutter amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The co-chairmen of Lamont’s advisory group, of which Butler is a member, also took issue with the tribes’ reopening plan. Dr. Albert Ko, professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, “strongly seconded” Lamont and Emanuel, saying the casinos’ proximity to New York City, their indoor nature and their elderly customer base constitute “the proverbial perfect storm” for transmission of the coronavirus. Ko said casino employees as well as customers could have underlying medical conditions that heighten their risk.

“I understand where they’re coming from,” said Indra Nooyi, the advisory group’s other co-chairman. “They have loss of business and these were thriving enterprises. ... They just think they can keep everybody safe.”

She said many tribal members have diabetes, making them more prone to being affected by the virus.

The tribes issued their joint announcement shortly before Lamont’s daily briefing. They said their casinos were cautiously moving forward and would at first keep their concert venues, buffets and poker rooms closed while allowing their restaurants to provide only takeout service.

In the first phase, the casinos will not market to New York or Massachusetts customers, and no out-of-state buses will be accepted at either property, the tribes said.

James Gessner, the Mohegan chairman, commented in a statement following the governor’s news conference.

“Governor Lamont and his reopen team expressed two general concerns about Connecticut casinos opening on June 1. First, they worry about the regional impact, specifically referencing buses coming from New York or other states,” he said. “We completely agree, that’s why the plan we put forward today made clear that both casinos will not accept buses from New York or  Massachusetts, nor will we do any marketing to those states at this time. Second, they are concerned about older customers who may have increased health risks. Again we agree, that’s why the plan we put forward today made clear that we will advise older customers to take specific precautions and to stay home if they are part of an at-risk group."

"We appreciate the Governor’s concerns, and we appreciate that he also made clear the tribal nations are being ‘thoughtful’ about reopening," Gessner said. "We look forward to working with him further as the state continues to reopen."

State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague, who last week joined a dozen other southeastern Connecticut lawmakers in urging Lamont to address the region’s soaring unemployment, said she was in full support of the tribes’ plan.

“We know that these two casinos and their hotels and restaurants and shops and employees contribute billions of dollars to Connecticut’s economy, and they provide jobs for thousands and thousands of people all across the state,” she said. “As other Connecticut businesses begin to emerge from the COVID-19 lockdown, so will the Mohegans and Mashantucket Pequots. It’s time.”

b.hallenbeck@theday.com
 

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