Emerald Queen Casino’s operators are investigating allegations received by a federal agency that it is operating with sick workers, overcrowded rooms and no enforcement of mask usage.
The casino, operated by The Puyallup Tribe of Indians, on Monday posted a short statement on its website: “We are investigating recent allegations of COVID-19 safety issues at Emerald Queen Casino. We will finish our investigation as promptly as possible and will provide an update upon completion of the investigation.”
The News Tribune received information over the weekend that one worker had alerted friends on Facebook of receiving a positive COVID-19 test result.
That worker, contacted by The News Tribune, described unsafe working conditions and provided a memo that had been shared with employees that listed alleged health and safety hazards as received by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The News Tribune agreed not to publish the name of the worker over fears of retribution from casino managers.
A representative for the Department of Labor confirmed the validity of the memo on Tuesday but told The News Tribune via email, “We cannot provide additional information or further details since this is an open case under investigation at this time.”
The ‘COVID corner’
According to the memo, OSHA said it received notice of alleged workplace hazards July 15 in regard to the Tacoma casino-hotel, 2920 E. R. St.
Allegations in the memo shared with The News Tribune on Tuesday include:
▪ “60 to 100 people on busy nights in approximately 100 square feet of space in High Limit section of the casino. Employees jokingly call this area COVID corner.”
▪ “Patrons while ‘required’ to wear masks are not asked to leave when refusing despite the casino’s ‘zero tolerance policy.’ Guests are in close proximity to both employees, and each other.”
▪ A shortage and/or lack of use of hand sanitizer and that “numerous employees have now been infected with coronavirus.”
The memo went on to say, “On July 13, management in Table Games were made aware that a dealer was visibly ill with multiple symptoms of coronavirus. He had called out the previous day for flu-like symptoms. He was permitted to work the full eight hours, coughing and sneezing while interacting with guests.”
The memo also alleged that on July 14 EQC HR staff made calls to numerous workers, naming a worker who had tested positive and recommending testing for workers. Naming the sick worker violated confidentiality, the memo said.
“Approximately two hours after these calls went out the entire casino was aware of who was being asked to be tested “ and who had contracted the virus, the memo alleged.
The allegations also contend “numerous sick players” have been in attendance, with one worker told to “’stay quiet because they are playing large amounts of money.”
The memo also alleged some employees, including cooks, are not wearing masks.
The memo goes on to state that OSHA has “not determined whether the hazards as alleged exist at your workplace,” and that the memo “is not a citation or a notification of proposed penalty, which … may be issued only after an inspection or investigation of the workplace.”
It added that it did not intend to hold an on-site inspection “at this time” but requested the operators to investigate “and make any necessary corrections or modifications.”
The operators then must submit the results of their investigation, including corrective action steps taken, to OSHA by July 24.
The agency also stated that if it did not receive any feedback from the casino’s operators by July 24, it would conduct its own inspection, which could include a review of onsite injury and illness records and more.
It added, “OSHA conducts random inspections to verify corrective actions asserted by the employer have actually been taken.”
The Puyallup Tribe operates casinos both in Tacoma and Fife. The newly built Tacoma casino just off I-5 opened to the public June 8. The casino originally planned to open in March but was delayed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent closures of businesses to help slow the spread.
The EQC Fife location reopened May 18.
Casino representatives said the sites would limit occupancy, perform temperature scans upon entry and require face masks for both guests and staff, along with frequent sanitization for high-touch areas.
The tribe, in its statement posted Monday, stated: “We care about each and every one of you. The health and safety of our community, customers, employees and Members is one of our top priorities.”
The COVID-positive worker, in response to comments on the Facebook post, reported no fever and that the first symptoms were loss of taste and smell, along with fatigue and dizziness.
“I was exposed through other family,” the worker told The News Tribune via a Facebook chat on Tuesday. “My symptoms are gone; it was the worst couple weeks ever but so glad it’s over.”
“The sad part is most individuals at the casino use smoking as an excuse to not wear their mask,” the worker wrote, adding that the casino had grown “less strict on masks on guests and social distancing. Some rooms fill up with people, especially the high limits section.”
The worker said the site should be closed for cleaning.
“I don’t think smoking should be allowed at this time either. Employees should be notified people have tested positive to keep our own families safe. Hiding the truth is not helping,” the worker said.
Michael Thompson, media representative for the casino, referred The News Tribune to the tribe’s online statement and its COVID-19 safety procedures posted online.
On its website, it notes, “Smoking will be allowed on the floor and in designated smoking areas. We expect you to keep your mask on as much as possible.”
The casino’s COVID-19 Guidelines page included a popup notification on Monday noting it had taken “enhanced health and safety measures.”
“An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. … By visiting the Emerald Queen Hotel and Casino, you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure of COVID-19.”
The notification ends with, “Let us keep each other healthy and safe.”
ANOTHER CASE REPORTED
In a separate announcement, the tribe on Monday announced that “a person who works in the Puyallup Tribal Integrative Medicine (PTIM) building, 3700 Pacific Highway E. in Fife, has tested positive for COVID-19.”
The PTIM building is home to Salish Cancer Center and Charter College as well as several Tribal Administration offices and is closed until Thursday for deep cleaning, according to the announcement.
“The employee was at work in the PTIM building for only a short period of time last week and had limited interaction with others due to staggered shifts and Tribal Administration’s encouragement of teleworking,” according to Monday’s announcement.
It added workers who’d had contact with the individual were notified and that the employee is under a 14-day quarantine.
“Throughout the pandemic we have prepared for this possibility,” according to the announcement. “Our protocol when an employee tests positive is to close the employee’s primary work site and conduct a deep cleaning.”
“The Tribe has taken numerous measures to ensure the safety of our employees during the coronavirus outbreak, including encouraging teleworking for positions that allow, implementing social distancing, installing Plexiglas barriers, remodeling building entries and conducting regular cleaning and disinfection of buildings. The Tribe’s main Administration Building on Portland Avenue in Tacoma received a deep cleaning on Saturday,” according to the statement.
OUTBREAKS AND OVERSIGHT
With OSHA stating it was taking a hands-off approach until more information was gathered, other oversight agencies also are not in a position to take any action.
The state’s Department of Labor & Industries told The News Tribune in response to questions, “We have no jurisdiction over tribal employers in this situation,” so its Division of Occupational Safety and Health “has not done any inspections or activity at those sites,” according to Debby Abe, media representative for the department.
No additional information was forthcoming from the Tacoma-Pierce County Department of Health, which told The News Tribune that any details on the case investigations would have to come from the tribe.
The health department has reported that more businesses are seeing small outbreaks, with 13 in the county the week of July 4, up from seven the week prior and just two the week of June 20.
In a series of tweets posted Sunday, the health department noted it had seen “an increase of cases or secondary transmissions from Fourth of July and all types in Phase 2 where people are not physical distancing and not wearing face coverings — social, business, civic, political, athletic, religious — any type of gathering.”
On Friday, the state Department of Health painted a grim picture of the pandemic, saying that cases had reached “explosive” levels of transmission.