Poker players crowd casinos during California lockdown

Jon Pill
Posted on: January 06, 2021 04:11 PST

“At a poker table, we're sitting seven players, plus a dealer. That's eight people sitting at a table that's 6 feet long.” So says one of the poker dealers at the Graton Resort and Casino. The dealer, who wished to remain anonymous was talking to KQED News.

With most of the other casinos in the area shut down. Staff are worried by both the volume of players, and the distance players are travelling.

"They all started traveling up here,” the dealer said. They cited some players as having traveled two hours to sit and play for “10, 12 hours a day in the same room with the same seats, the same people.”

In the middle of a fast moving pandemic, this sounds like a nightmare scenario.

Washing the invisible hand

As I.C.U. capacities were nearing exhaustion at the end of last year, California closed down huge swaths of its most populous regions. Some 27 million people were put back under stay-at-home orders. It shut most of the casinos in the state.

Even this shutdown wasn't enough to stem the tide of deaths which Thanksgiving and Christmas gatherings set in motion. The number of COVID deaths per day in California is mounting week on week. The current seven-day average is 352 dead per day.

These regional stay-at-home orders included the Bay Area where the Graton Resort and Casino is located. However, as the Graton is owned by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, it is outside the jurisdiction of state-level orders. Reservations are Federal land and follow Federal rules. And Trump has ensured there are no Federal rules on COVID.

The result is that Native American owned casinos are the only game in town for SoCal.

For two-thirds of California's poker players, the drive up to Graton and other reservation casinos is the only alternative to hauling up the Barstow Freeway or Down Route 95 to Vegas, passing through COVID checkpoints.

It's hard to fight without a complete shutdown. But that would mean giving up profits over a key period of the year. Casinos make their big bucks in holiday periods. The invisible hand of the market is just too big for hand sanitizer.

Preventative measures

"The Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria continue to work closely with the Sonoma County Public Health Officer," said Greg Sarris, Tribal Chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria.

Players must wear masks. The bars are closed and alcohol table service stops at 9 PM.

However, players are allowed to smoke at the table. A fact that emphasises the process of inhalation, exhalation, and the degree to which all these players are sharing each other's breath.

“Many of us are scared for our families and community,” the dealer said to KQED. "We in the poker industry, we're math people. We're statistics people. I can't help but think about California's positivity rate: 2% to 3%. And if you apply that to 105 people, statistically two to three people in that [poker room] are positive at any given point.”

Other Tribal Casinos have also been opened over the holiday period. Thunder Valley Resort Casino, Morongo Casino Resort & Spa declares, and Barona Resort Casino all advertised their New Year openings widely to California markets.

For many tribes, the casinos are one of the major industries in their communities. In some, the casinos are the major industry. With the economy hit as hard as it has been by the coronavirus, it's understandable why they would push to stay open if they possibly can.

But for staff, having to come in to work can be a stressful experience. And until better leadership can move into the White House, there isn't likely to be much change.

Featured image source: Twitter