By JONAH LOSSIAH
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort was one of the first major retail operations in Cherokee that reopened after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown.
The casino was closed on March 18 as a precautionary measure to address the rapid spread of COVID-19. This significantly disrupted their revenue stream and Harrah’s is still operating at a limited capacity. The casino began the reopening process on May 18, two months after closure. The EBCI (Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) tribal government didn’t begin full operations until June 22.
Harrah’s knew that given their early start they would need to take as many safety precautions as possible to stay open. “Employees have been trained on cleaning and disinfectant techniques, including use of PPE, protocols for all surfaces and tracking cleaning schedules,” stated a representative from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.
“We are increasing the frequency of cleaning high-touch surfaces in public areas in our casinos, including restaurants, hotel rooms and elevators, as well as frequently touched areas on the casino floor. We are facilitating the recommended social distancing guidelines throughout the casino and the presence of hand sanitizer stations have been increased across each area.”
The casino has implemented mask requirements and additional safety precautions for guests as well. This has been received well.
“Guests have been very cooperative. More casinos and other hospitality-oriented business around the country are now requiring facemasks, so our guests have become more accustomed to this precaution,” said the Harrah’s representative.
There has been one cluster reported at the casino, as reported in July. Five employees tested positive for COVID-19. However, this did not halt business. Those employees were placed in isolation and business continued forward.
As much as safety is a concern, so is consistency and revenue. That goes for the Tribe, as well. Program budgets across the board have taken hits due to the pandemic. According to a report in June, EBCI Budget & Finance said that they were operating at a 50 percent revenue projection from gaming. That’s opposed to an 80 percent projection last year. Many of these cuts have been made due to the unpredictable future in regard to gaming.
“Gaming revenue has been better than anticipated, but still below original budgets and prior year,” reported Harrah’s Cherokee.
The casino has been reopened for over four months now and for the time being it seems prepared to maintain a limited capacity. The continued revenue stream will be important for both the Tribe and casino operations, as there are multiple projects in under way at the Cherokee location.
Last summer, Harrah’s was excited to announce that sports betting was coming to Cherokee after North Carolina Senate Bill 154 was passed by the House and signed by Governor Roy Cooper. That was in July of 2019, yet nothing has been implemented.
“An amended gaming compact between the EBCI and North Carolina is the final step that needs to be completed. As with other things, this process paused as the COVID-19 pandemic began, but discussions with the governor’s council are continuing and are very active. There is not a definitive timeline for completion, but we feel optimistic that will happen soon. Once the compact is signed, it will go to the National Indian Gaming Commission for approval,” said the Harrah’s representative.
There is also the matter of major construction being done. Harrah’s Cherokee Casino is currently in the latter stages of a new hotel and convention center. Along with that are plans to integrate additional retail space into the casino for new businesses. Talks on retail are moving forward, but that is all that the casino is willing to report at this time. As for construction, both projects have an estimated completion date for late 2021.
Harrah’s is determined to move forward, and the Tribe is doing what it can to accommodate their primary source of cash flow. Something that is outside of Harrah’s authority is whether it stays open in the event of a surge of cases in the area. It will obviously have a say on all operations moving forward, but according to the Harrah’s representative the final decision regarding a shutdown is up to the EBCI.