COWLITZ INDIAN RESERVATION — ilani reopened its doors Thursday following a 70-day closure due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
The move jumps the casino resort ahead of the reopening timetable for the rest of Clark County, but ilani’s leaders expressed confidence a set of new health protocols would allow operations to resume safely.
Cowlitz Tribal Chairman Bill Iyall, spiritual leader Tanna Engdahl and ilani president and general manager Kara Fox-LaRose led a welcoming and ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the casino’s main entrance Thursday morning as an initial crowd of about 200 guests began to fill out a queue space that had been preconfigured with guardrails and markings to maintain 6-foot separation distances.
“We are pleased now to reopen ilani so it can keep providing support for our tribe and our community,” Iyall said.
Fox-LaRose discussed a wide range of new health safety measures implemented during the closure, including mandatory masks for all staff and customers and enforced social distancing on the gaming floor. Casino staff will provide masks for customers who don’t bring their own.
Every person who enters the casino must pass through a touch-free temperature check station, and anyone with a fever will be turned away. The casino also has contact-tracing plans in place in case any guests report a COVID-19 diagnosis after visiting, she said.
The casino’s interior has been reconfigured to discourage crowds from forming at any location, Fox-LaRose said. Roughly half of the video slot machines have been shut down so guests can’t sit in adjacent seats. Plexiglas dividers have been added to the card tables to separate guests from the dealers and each other.
Tables have been spaced at least 6 feet apart at all the restaurants, she said, and the Muze Lounge dance floor has been converted into more table space. Live shows and events have been canceled for the time being; the Cowlitz Ballroom venue has been repurposed to serve as larger queue space for the casino’s Momentum rewards program desk.
Slot machines and other high-touch surfaces will be sanitized regularly, and Fox-LaRose said about 100 hand sanitizing stations have been added across the gaming floor. The casino is also tracking total occupancy, she said, targeting about half of what would normally be permitted.
The casino was scheduled to open at noon Thursday, but the biggest guest crowd arrived during the opening ceremony. The line was modest compared with what ilani typically sees, with most of the parking lot still empty — although a slow-but-steady stream of cars continued to arrive throughout the morning and into the afternoon.
About 70 percent of the casino’s staff have been called back to work, Fox-LaRose said; the rest remain on furlough with their benefits covered.
Construction work continued on ilani’s future parking garage during the closure, and Fox-LaRose said the casino also moved up the timetable for some planned expansions to Cowlitz Way so paving could happen during the shutdown.
The casino’s new operating standards will continue for the foreseeable future, Fox-LaRose said, and ilani will try to match or exceed Washington’s recommended health safety guidelines.
Several Washington counties have been given permission to move to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which allows for restaurants and retail shops to resume limited in-person operations, and Fox-LaRose cited the relaxed restrictions as one of the factors that prompted ilani to reopen. Clark County, however, is still in Phase 1.
The Cowlitz Tribe enjoys sovereign rights and is not required to follow the state’s reopening schedule. Several other casinos throughout the state also resumed operations in the past two weeks. Inslee said he thought the reopenings were coming too soon, but he commended the tribes for taking safety precautions.
“I have expressed to the tribes I would very much be more pleased if their openings were consistent with some of the business openings in our state,” he said at a May 14 press briefing.
Clark County applied to move to Phase 2 last week and appeared poised to receive permission quickly, but its application was shelved after news broke over the weekend of a large outbreak at a Firestone Pacific Foods food processing facility in Fruit Valley.