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Graton Resort & Casino set to reopen Thursday after three-month closure

Graton Resort & Casino is set to resume business Thursday exactly three months after the local coronavirus shutdown, marking what is likely the single largest commercial restart in Sonoma County, including the first hotel with rooms offered for nonessential stays, indoor dining at an array of restaurants and a 24-hour gaming floor that can normally draw thousands of people at a time.

The Bay Area’s largest gambling destination - and one of the county’s largest private employers - is reopening its doors at 8 a.m. with a reconfigured layout that will include fewer slot machines and an occupancy limit that is about half of usual capacity.

Everyone inside will have to abide by local public health guidelines, including wearing face masks at all times, maintaining adequate physical distance and consenting to temperature checks at the door. If a person shows up without a facial covering, one will be provided, according to a casino spokeswoman.

“It’s going to be rather strict and not as much fun, but we have to do it and will be insistent on health issues,” said Greg Sarris, tribal chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the Las Vegas-style resort on Rohnert Park’s outskirts. “We’ve got beefed-up security to make sure guests follow the rules. If they give us any guff or are not going to do that, they will be asked to leave.”

Casino officials were unable to provide specifics about the new occupancy limit, but said that once it was reached, patrons would be allowed inside only when a sufficient number of guests had left, similar to many grocery stores nowadays.

Slots have been spaced out on the gaming floor and Plexiglas dividers will separate masked dealers from players at table games, where seating has also been reduced. Valet parking and live entertainment are on hiatus until further notice, and the pool, spa and fitness center at the 200-room hotel will for now remain closed.

In addition, hand sanitizer stations have been installed throughout the 320,000-square-foot casino, cleanings have been ramped up and many other hotel services have been converted to touchless. Reduced bus service to the casino from San Francisco and cities in the East Bay and South Bay won’t resume until June 29.

“Part of the reason we’re doing this is we feel with COVID cases, they could be rising, and we don’t want to have to close and open again,” Sarris said. “We want to do what we can now so everything is in place so that the operation is as safe as any operation can be. I can’t and won’t make predictions, the situation is so fluid and we don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m not in the business of prognostication, and none of us knows. I can say Graton Resort & Casino will always do the right thing working with the community.”

The reopening comes after a wave of casinos restarted operations last month in Las Vegas and Southern California, each applying safeguards and limits to reduce the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

River Rock Casino near Geyserville, which is owned and operated by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, has set a reopening date of June 29.

Messages left for River Rock Casino staff went unreturned Wednesday. But many of the same safeguards and precautions appear to be in store, including reconfigured seating, temperature checks for guests and employees, and mandatory face masks for everyone while inside, according to River Rock Casino’s website.

As sovereign nations, the Graton and Dry Creek tribes are not bound by the state or county stay-at-home orders. However, Graton has worked with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s ?administration and the local public health department to deploy pandemic protocols, Sarris said.

While county public health officials have not inspected the casino property ahead of its reopening, resort and health officials spoke by phone to ensure the business is managed as safely as possible under the circumstances, said Dr. Sundari Mase, the county’s health officer.

“They are putting into place the kinds of mitigation measures that the state is requiring of all businesses as they open,” Mase said. “I think they’re trying to take all of the mitigation measures seriously. However, as you know, any sort of indoor activity like that that involves a lot of people at once can be of concern, because if there’s one case, then you might get a lot of spread.”

Cigarette smoke could pose yet another challenge for casinos in preventing transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, she said. Although specific data on risks associated with smoking and the coronavirus is not yet available, she said, people who inhale tobacco smoke, even secondhand, could be more prone to infection.

“That secondhand smoke affects people the same way as if they were smoking,” Mase said. “So even if you don’t smoke and you’re in the casino and it’s smoke filled, that could also increase your likelihood and chances of getting an infectious disease, including COVID.”

The $825 million casino, opened in 2013, two years ago added a 9,000-square-foot smoke-free gambling area with its own entrance and ventilation system; its restaurants also are smoke free.

The reopening means a renewed opportunity for about 2,000 employees at the casino and hotel to get back to regular work.

On May 1, more than 1,200 workers were furloughed. All had been paid and received health benefits since the closure March 17, according to the tribe. About 20 employees, mostly those who are 65 years of age or older or have underlying health issues, chose not to return, Sarris said.

About 150 hourly employees, primarily those associated with security and hotel maintenance and cleaning, were kept on over the last month and a half. About 350 salaried workers were retained the whole time, with top managers accepting a 20% pay cut during the shutdown.

Getting back to this moment took a lot of planning, coordination and financial investment, Sarris said. The tribe had Newsom’s blessing to reopen on June 8, he said, but opted to wait until Thursday to provide employees with thorough and safely spaced trainings.

“We watched what was happening in Sonoma County, paid attention to the health inspector and wanted more time,” Sarris said. “We were determined to make sure that we had done everything we can to protect our guests as well as team members and do it in way that’s sustainable.”

The gambling hub also is an important revenue generator for city and county coffers. The Graton tribe has paid out more than $60 million to Rohnert Park and more than $10 million in donations to local nonprofits and to support open space protection, according to the city.

The city received a $2.4 million payment for the first quarter of the year. The second-quarter payment will be made, according to an email from City Manager Darrin Jenkins to council members.

“It certainly provides an economic boost for the tribe, and an important source of employment and well-paid jobs with benefits,” Don Schwartz, spokesman for the city of Rohnert Park, said of the casino’s reopening. “We hope they’re successful. We’re still in the midst of a pandemic, so spread is a continual concern. We hope that success includes not contributing further to the spread, and are confident they’re taking the steps to mitigate those possibilities.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler.

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