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Finding a path to compromise over casino reopening

There are some signs that perhaps Gov. Ned Lamont and the state’s two tribal-run casinos can reach a compromise that would lead to the gaming giants reopening in cooperation with the state rather than in defiance of the governor’s wishes.

A showdown that ends with the Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan Sun casinos opening to the public next Monday in disregard to what the Lamont administration considers a threat to public health will not be good for the tribes or the state. It could potentially have lasting and negative consequences for the relationship between the sovereign tribes and the state, would make a successful reopening that much more difficult, and could invite litigation.

Lamont has been too slow in responding to the need for the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes to reopen their casinos as soon as safely possible, stemming the economic damage they have faced due to a closure that has lasted 10 weeks. The casinos were built on a model of never closing, and they never did, until COVID-19.

When the tribes sought some relief by asking the governor to use his executive order authority to allow them to match the online sports wagering and gaming available in other states, Lamont declined. It was the right decision. That’s an awfully big step to take using an executive order and far afield of public health and safety. But the governor expressed no urgency about seeking a legislative path to achieve that end. He could have at least given some indication he cared.

The governor has seemed tone deaf to the economic damage inflicted on this region. It has seen the highest unemployment due, in significant part, to the closing of the casinos and the loss of business for the hundreds of contractors who feed its supply and service chains. When local lawmakers, in bipartisan fashion, wrote to the governor about their collective concern as to how hard the area was being hit economically, his response amounted to a shrug.

Yet the governor is not wrong when he emphasizes the health risks involved and points to the potential that reopening the casinos could spark new outbreaks of the coronavirus. These are large-scale, indoor operations that draw on a customer base from a wide area, and many of its patrons are elderly and much more vulnerable.

But, for too long, Lamont and his administration acted disinterested in what the casinos were planning to improve safety. Finally, this week, he dispatched members of the administration to take a look, including acting Commissioner of the Department of Public Health Deidre Gifford.

Lamont has of late tossed out the idea of waiting a bit longer, to mid-June, to allow the coronavirus hospitalizations to, hopefully, continue their downward trend before starting up the casinos. Lamont also talked about not serving alcohol initially, helping assure appropriate behavior by patrons as the safety protocols are tested.

These suggestions could form the basis for compromise, perhaps a delayed opening but one supported by the state, or a non-alcohol one.

The tribal-run casinos have already made several concessions, including opening restaurants only for takeout, keeping the buffets and poker rooms closed, and avoiding out-of-state marketing. Arena and performance theaters will also remain closed.

Our expectation is that initial crowds will not be large, which would be a good thing. Getting sufficient workers to return could be a challenge. A slow ramp up, with opportunities to pause and reconsider, makes sense.

What would not make sense would be to see this turn ugly, with the governor suspending liquor licenses, for example, and the tribes responding with threats to withhold slot money owed to the state.

Work this out.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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