For many Native American tribes, there’s no business like the casino business. Certainly, there is no industry that’s been as enthusiastically pushed on the tribes by the U.S. Congress as the gaming industry.
Today, across much of Indian Country, that enthusiasm is shared by tribal and state governments, both of whom have grown to depend on the revenues from and the jobs at casinos, hotels, bingo halls and racetracks.
All the 25 casinos in the State of New Mexico closed in conformance with orders from Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham in mid-March. A few started to reopen in mid-June with more reopening in early September, but limited to 25 percent capacity, marked by temperature testing at the entrance and masks and social distancing once inside.
But the losses in revenues and paychecks have been devastating. The Chief Economist of New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee estimates last revenues to the state from gaming at more than $55 million in FY 2020 and just under $40 million in 2021. The tribal governments have been as hard hit as have the more than 4000 New Mexicans employed in casinos or casino hotels.
More than 1000 workers at five Navajo casinos in New Mexico and Arizona are still off the job as a Native community devastated by COVID-19 is very cautiously reopening an industry that depends on out of state visitors.
Laguna Pueblo reopened its casino and hotel in June, but only to in-state clients. This has undoubtedly restrained business, but it has also kept the Laguna property clear of any Coronavirus infections.
So far, budget cuts forced by the COVID-19 outbreak have had more effect on future state and tribal investments than on present services. But there is an ironic exception – services for gambling addicts are largely funded by the industry. Closed casinos and racetracks has closed off the pipeline of gaming industry money for addiction treatment and other charitable and educational projects. The racing industry, for example, made $213,000 in such contributions in February when business was open. By June that had shrunk to $45.
Katherine Lewin is a grant-funded fellow in the Report for America program working at the Santa Fe Reporter. Her main focus is the texture and life of the city’s Southside using writing, photography, videography and audio. She’s a Florida native who began her reporting career at Miami Today News and has worked as a freelance multimedia producer for Al Jazeera. In 2018, she received a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting to cover Cuba’s housing crisis. Katherine has won several awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for both her reporting and photo essays. She earned a B.A. in journalism from Flagler College, where she worked at The Gargoyle student newspaper producing award-winning coverage of refugees and civil rights in Northeast Florida.