Graton Resort & Casino furloughs workers, eyes staged reopening as early as June

The casino outside Rohnert Park has been closed since mid-March. It could reopen as soon as June in a staged process that casino and tribal officials are planning now.|

Graton Resort & Casino, the Bay Area’s biggest gambling hub and one of Sonoma County’s largest employers, on Friday furloughed three-quarters of its workers as the closed casino, like many businesses shuttered amid the coronavirus pandemic, looks to save on payroll costs.

The casino and hotel outside Rohnert Park continued to pay most of its employees and cover health benefits through April after closing its doors on the eve of the county’s initial stay-at-home order going into effect in mid-March. Casino workers with less than 90 days on the job were laid off, and top management also took a 20% pay cut, according to Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino property.

The latest move, Sarris said, stemmed from a recognition that coronavirus restrictions on nonessential businesses would likely stave off any reopening for weeks, putting added strain on the business’ bottom line.

“We had to sit down with management and have some serious discussions,” Sarris said. “We’ve watched things with the virus go from bad to worse and saw it would probably be some time not having any revenue coming in, so what are we going to do?”

Once federal stimulus checks began hitting employees’ bank accounts and it became clear casino workers would be eligible for unemployment assistance, Sarris said the move to furlough most of the casino’s 2,000 employees became more palatable. Those who worked at least 20 hours a week will keep their health care benefits through the shutdown, he said.

In the meantime, about 150 workers remain on the job, including those involved in security, casino and hotel maintenance and cleaning crews and kitchen staff needed to feed them all, Sarris said. Another 350 salaried workers remain employed with the casino, according to the casino’s general manager, Lana Rivera.

Furloughs and layoffs have spread across Sonoma County’s hospitality workforce, which accounts for about 23,000 jobs. More than a third of the 160 hotel properties countywide are closed, according to the California Hotel & Lodging Association. While pay for furloughed workers has been cut off, many hotel operators continue to provide health care benefits, said Lynn Mohrfeld, president and CEO of the lodging association.

With bookings reserved only for long-term guests or essential workers, occupancy rates at local hotels through April were down 64% compared to this same time last year, according to STR, a hospitality industry research firm. Upscale hotels in the county’s tourist hubs, including Sonoma and Healdsburg, saw sharper declines of up to 70%.

About 4,000 of those employed in the local hospitality industry work in lodging, and jobless claim figures for that sector have yet to be released. Mohrfeld said more than 30% already have been laid off, with many others furloughed.

Unemployment across the tourism sector could reach 80%, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

“No question, there’s significant unemployment in the entire hospitality industry,” Vecchio said. “I don’t think we’ll level out until the fall, but just as more things come back, we’ll start to see employment inch back up.”

Meanwhile, Sarris said Graton Resort & Casino is eyeing a “modest reopening” by as early as June - a timeline that would seem to test now-?indefinite county and state rules barring even moderately sized gatherings of people through at least Labor Day, forcing concerts, fairs and festivals to cancel.

Sarris noted that Wynn Resorts, which operates a casino and hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, hopes to again welcome guests by Memorial Day. Graton Casino, he said, has developed a four-step plan that Sarris said he sent to Gov. Gavin Newsom to help ease the tribe’s path toward reopening both its gaming floor and some of its 200-room hotel.

“We will work very closely with him to reopen in phases, and it’ll look a lot like a ‘Brave New World,’?” Sarris said. “Machines will be 6 feet apart and you cannot take off your mask unless you’re seated at a machine. Tables will be spaced apart and only three people allowed at a time, with the dealer heavily masked.”

Newsom earlier this week unveiled his own four-stage plan for reopening the state’s economy. As a “higher-risk workplace,” according to Sundari Mase, Sonoma County’s health officer, casinos would fall under stage 3 of that strategy.

However, as a sovereign nation, the tribe is not bound by Newsom’s statewide order or the county’s shutdown. But Sarris said he agrees with the governor’s data- and science-based approach and that the tribe would take all possible precautions if it decides to reopen ahead of the governor and the county.

Such steps could include installing thermal scanners to check patrons’ temperatures at entrances, Sarris said.

“I’ve never had the attitude of, ‘Well, we don’t have to do what you tell us,’?” he said. “We are good neighbors, and we live here, too.”

Mase, who acknowledged the nuance of tribal sovereignty in this case, nevertheless said the indoor nature of gambling halls puts them at higher risk of spreading the virus.

“I would think it would be an error at this point for a casino to open immediately while we’re still not meeting all of our criteria and objectives,” she said. “It’ll be harder to potentially enforce physical distancing and a lot of the other precautionary measures that we take in terms of keeping things very sanitary.

“Having said that,” she added, “that’s just what I think right now and there may be ways in which we could look at different businesses and how to make them even more safe.”

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