When the Kalispel Tribe of Indians closed its casino as the coronavirus took hold in Washington state, it essentially shut down its economy. That difficult choice has played out nationwide as some 500 Native American casinos have voluntarily closed during the pandemic, often taking away tribes' main source of income in an effort to protect people's health in communities with limited medical resources, the AP reports. The US government authorized $8 billion for tribes in a coronavirus relief package in March, but it's been slow to distribute the money, deepening the woes on reservations. "We can't fund any programs without the casino"—no health care, education, law enforcement, or fire protection, said Phil Haugen, chief operating officer of the Kalispel Tribal Economic Authority.
Its Northern Quest Casino near Spokane closed for nearly two months, costing the tribe millions of dollars. But with restrictions starting to loosen nationwide, the casino reopened Tuesday with limits on the number of customers, frequent cleaning, and fewer slot machines and chairs at table games to ensure social distancing. While other Native American-owned casinos have reopened or plan to in coming weeks, most are still closed. That's also forced layoffs and furloughs among the more than 1 million people working for tribes, many of them in casinos. Furloughed workers had been getting by with unemployment benefits and health coverage that many casinos kept in place, says union leader John DelMonte. But now "we want to get back to work," he says. (Meanwhile, one state is facing off against two Sioux tribes.)