It’s the right thing to do, but casino closures batter the heart of Indian Country By John L. Smith, CDC Gaming Reports August 5, 2020 at 8:00 pm GALLUP, N.M. – On a normal weekend, the parking lots of the Firerock Navajo Casino just off Interstate 40 is crammed to capacity with the cars, pickups, and long-haul big rigs of customers seeking a good time. But, of course, these days there are no normal weekends. And so the casino, officially located outside Gallup in Church Rock on old Interstate 66, is shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic and the deadly spread of COVID-19. The 64,000-square foot gaming floor, with its 1,100 slot machines and blackjack tables, is silent. The Cheii Grill and restaurants that offer everything from burgers and steaks to Navajo tacos and lamb stew are quiet. The casino has been an important employer, economic driver, and social center for the Navajo Nation since it opened in November 2008. The economic hit is withering to the sovereign nation of approximately 175,000, which has been in the news recently because of the great challenges it faces bringing clean water to a population scattered over a 17.5-million acre land that reaches into three states. Unlike other areas of the country, Navajo Gaming continues to play it safe at a time of so much uncertainty. The nation’s casino operations entity has repeatedly rescheduled the reopening of the gaming properties, this time to 10 a.m. Aug. 17. And of course, that’s also subject to change. In March, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham worked assertively with the tribe to close busy casinos whose crowds made social distancing difficult to impossible. Exacerbating matters was a political divide that manifested in a substantial policy difference between New Mexico and Arizona and Utah. Democrat Lujan Grisham mandated masks and was aggressive in encouraging the social distancing guidelines presented by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC.) Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and Utah Gov. Gary Herbert echoed rhetoric from the Trump White House that downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and the dangers of COVID-19. The Firerock Navajo Casino just off Interstate 40 in Gallup, New Mexico I still wonder where the concerned parties might be if the Trump administration had quickly rolled out a national health and safety strategy. But that wasn’t the case. Instead, governors across the country were left to fend for themselves, bartering for personal protective equipment and ventilators, and jockeying for a political position. Native American sovereignty further complicated the equation in some states. Not in New Mexico, where Lujan Grisham moved quickly to institute social distancing rules that remained mere recommendations elsewhere. That effort has found critics in the business community, which has sued and called arbitrary and irrational elements of the governor’s stay-at-home order and questioned her authority to issue fines against businesses and enforce a public health order in what some have called a hardline approach. The issue is currently before the New Mexico state Supreme Court. Courts in New York, California, Illinois, and Colorado ruled against litigants in similar suits, determining that enforcing emergency health orders doesn’t constitute an actionable “taking” by the government. What hasn’t changed is Lujan Grisham’s working relationship with tribal governments, echoed in her statement earlier made during the start of the pandemic’s spread. “We are extremely grateful that our tribal partners have agreed to join us in doing everything we can to encourage social distancing as our best tool to contain the virus,” she said. “We understand the economic hardship this creates, and our state agencies will work diligently to assist all employees affected by this temporary closure. Public health must be our primary consideration amid this pandemic.” Despite the hardship, that message has been taken to heart in the Navajo Nation. John L. Smith is a longtime Las Vegas columnist and author. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @jlnevadasmith.