'Dreamt of this moment': Reopening day is here for six casinos around the Coachella Valley

Six casinos in or near the Coachella Valley are opening their doors Friday to guests who are ready to gamble on slot machines and card games, despite a request from Gov. Gavin Newsom to stay closed.  Newsom  sent a letter to California tribes on May 15 urging them not to reopen their gaming facilities. But tribes are sovereign nations and don't have to follow local or state stay-at-home orders. Several popular casinos in the San Diego area opened earlier this week.

Casinos are considered higher-risk workplaces because of the volume of people they bring in and fall under Stage 3 of the governor's reopening plan. Other businesses in Stage 3 have not been allowed to reopen yet. 

When the doors to Spotlight 29 Casino near Coachella opened at 10 a.m., after a closure that's lasted more than two months, someone from the crowd yelled out “Freedom!”

By that time, more than 150 people were already in line to get in. 

Over 200 people had entered the casino by 10:15 a.m. Employees at the entrance said people began lining up just after 8:30 a.m., with some saying they had driven from as far as the Los Angeles area and Orange County.

Guests had to get their temperatures checked by security as they pulled up in their vehicles to help curb the spread of COVID-19. Security staff declined to tell The Desert Sun whether they had turned anyone away.

Everyone who entered the casino was required to wear a face mask, with one provided if needed. Blue latex gloves were also offered, but not required to enter.

“I saved a lot of money the last couple months, quarantined inside," joked Larry Potter, who drove by himself from Banning. "Hopefully I don’t lose it today." 

Adam Levy, assistant director of marketing for Spotlight 29, said the Twenty-Nine Palms Band of Mission Indians was meticulous in organizing the opening, following guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Riverside County. The casino opened only one entrance, so staff could turn people away in their cars, if needed.

Levy said capacity is 2,200, but the casino is only allowing 500 people in at a time to start. That will hopefully change in time, he said. The casino is not hosting a buffet for safety reasons, Levy added, and that was the only complaint he’d heard on Friday.

Inside the casino, staff were enforcing social distancing and facial coverings. Staff wiped down machines, too. Naturally, not everyone was 6 feet apart at all times, but staff were doing their best to enforce it.

At least two women, Cori Francis and Cheryl Pegram, both of Cathedral City, said they planned to go to the other Coachella Valley casinos reopening Friday. 

“This has been the craziest time of my life," Francis said. "Hopefully this is the start of things returning to normal.” 

Pegram said she had "dreamt of this moment" when she could get out again. 

The Spotlight 29 Casino and the Tortoise Rock Casino near Twentynine Palms were the first to open in the valley Friday, followed by the Agua Caliente casinos in Rancho Mirage and Palm Springs. 

While the Agua Caliente casinos were scheduled to open at noon, the Rancho Mirage facility opened its doors at 11 a.m. All entrances were open, with security checking people's temperatures inside. Masks were available for those who didn’t bring their own. 

About 400 patrons were inside the Rancho Mirage casino by Friday afternoon, and shops and eateries like Waters Cafe, Java Caliente, Swarovski and Sports Bar 360 were bustling. Like at Spotlight 29, Purell hand sanitizer stations could be found all over the casino. Sanitation crews meticulously wiped down machines, and staff tried to enforce social distancing. 

Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians Tribal Chairman Jeff L. Grubbe paid a visit to his tribe's casinos Friday.

“I walked the floors as we re-opened our casinos today,” Grubbe told The Desert Sun in an email. “All safety protocols are in place, and our team members and guests were appreciative that we are open again. It feels good to have nearly 1,500 team members back to work and to know that the Tribe is playing a big part in jump starting the Coachella Valley economy again.”

In announcing its reopening, the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians cited the Riverside County Board of Supervisors' vote supporting tribal governments' reopening of their casinos with social distancing measures in place and personal protective equipment provided for staff. 

"The County of Riverside has no jurisdiction over tribal lands," Riverside County spokeswoman Brooke Federico said on Friday. "We ask that all businesses consider the ways they can implement safer practices for their employees and customers when considering reopening."

The Morongo Casino & Resort near Banning and the nearby original Casino Morongo were scheduled to open at 2 p.m., but actually opened their doors around 11:30 a.m. There was no line at first, but once the scheduled opening time came around the parking garage was packed. The casino marquee read “Mask required” and “Good times are back!”

It was the most bustling of the casinos and had more than 150 people in line outside at 2:45 p.m., more than three hours after it opened. Signs were placed outside the entrance to the casino Friday afternoon to inform guests there may be a one- to two-hour wait. Several hopeful gamblers decided to give up after standing in the long line for 20 minutes, heading back to their cars. 

https://www.desertsun.com/story/news/health/2020/05/22/morongo-casino-others-reopen-despite-newsoms-request-stay-closed/5242127002/