If it weren’t for the masks and a sign laying out new “COVID-19 Rules,” entering the Nisqually Red Wind Casino parking garage Monday morning might’ve felt like entering a former reality.
The casino was one of two in the Olympia area to reopen Monday for the first time since shutting down in mid-March because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
Red Wind opened at 8 a.m. Throughout the morning, there was a steady, snaking queue of patrons young and old waiting to enter.
One floor up, visitors approached the elevator to ride down and join the line, many groping pockets or purses for whatever face covering they brought with them — store-bought masks, homemade masks, buffs, bandanas.
Without one, they wouldn’t be able to make it inside, according to the casino’s new rules.
“I’m glad that things are getting back to normal,” guest Rachelle Layng told The Olympian as she headed to the casino. Layng said she recently moved to Thurston County from Bremerton, and that the transition has been hard during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Now, on a day off work, she said she was looking forward to playing slots. She hasn’t been too concerned about the pandemic in general, she said.
Casino visitor Ralph Miranda told The Olympian he wasn’t concerned about going inside with the crowds, either, but not because the virus isn’t a threat. It’s because he believes Washington has done a good job of keeping it under control.
“I’m not worried about it,” Miranda said. He was used to visiting the casino a few times per week. Now, he said, he is ready to get out of the house and socialize with other adults again.
A representative for Red Wind didn’t offer a count of guests when The Olympian asked. Director of Marketing Tyson Kruger told members of local media that the casino would not allow on-site interviews.
“What I can tell you is things are going very well, and we have a lot of happy guests,” Kruger said.
He also provided a news release from the Nisqually Tribe.
“As a sovereign nation, Nisqually has determined the Red Wind Casino to be an essential business,” the news release reads. “Essential to the Tribe and community to provide resources that maintain Government Operations, Tribal Programs, and Tribal Member support.”
In making the decision to reopen, Nisqually leadership considered scientific information from the World Health Organization, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, state public health officials, and the University of Washington, the release reads.
“While today’s news is focused on reopening Nisqually’s economy, it is important to note that the Tribe is looking long-term,” it reads. “This means the Tribe will continue to monitor the pandemic situation and adapt operational practices that protect health, economy, jobs and communities.”
Across the street, the Nisqually Markets convenience store was seeing steadier traffic than it’s seen in awhile.
Store Manager Telea Petero told The Olympian the increase hadn’t necessarily been dramatic, and he had expected it after seeing the heavy crowds return to Angels of the Winds Casino for its reopening in Arlington last week. Now, he said, perhaps more options for patrons will mean the reopened casinos will spread out crowds.
About 30 miles away, the Squaxin Island Tribe’s Little Creek Casino Resort, near Shelton, opened to the public at 11 a.m. There, too, open doors were met with hundreds of masked patrons.
Among a slate of precautions — temperature checks, extensive cleaning, banning smoking — both casinos reopened with limited capacity.
Ray Peters, intergovernmental affairs liaison for the Squaxin Island Tribe and chief operating officer of the Little Creek Casino Resort, told The Olympian in a phone interview Monday that the casino was maintaining around 300 guests.
A traffic plan made the crowd “very manageable,” Peters said, and opening a bit later in the day likely helped. A couple people had been turned away for not having masks, he said, but nobody had been turned away for running a temperature.
“It’s just been really smooth … and uneventful,” Peters said. “It’s been nice. A lot of happy faces, people wanting to come in and have a release from being home. I think, I really believe that people understand the importance of social distancing, so nobody wants to blow it.”