While the coronavirus lockdown still affects many businesses across California, tribal casinos continue to operate in the state. And some closed California cardrooms want the governor to close tribal casinos as well.

Health Trumps Sovereignty

The coronavirus casino lockdown is not absolute, and only affects commercial casinos operating within states – but not tribal casinos. As federally funded entities operating outside of state law, tribal lands have a large degree of autonomy. This is how so many tribal casinos can operate in states where gambling is banned.

In California, full-on casinos are not legal, but cardrooms operate across the state on a limited license. But after they were closed during the pandemic for public health and safety reasons, these cardrooms were quick to point the finger at tribal casinos which remained open.

The California Gaming Association (CGA) sent a letter to Governor Gavin Newsom with their grievances and called upon the governor to close tribal casinos as well.

“In response to your July 1 order, all cardrooms in the targeted counties are now closed. In contrast, all tribal casinos in the targeted counties remain open. This is inconsistent with your directive and public health and safety protocols,” the letter stated.

Tribal-State Gaming Compacts

Tribes operate casinos by using their federally granted reservation lands to build them outside the jurisdiction of the state. They negotiate tribal-state compacts to allow them to build casinos, and any kickbacks they may owe the state.

But nobody counted on a global pandemic. The question of tribal sovereignty is now under the microscope, and politicians don’t want to engage in any messy courtroom battles over tribal rights. Especially since the battle would be fought on the federal field.

Gov. Newsom has stated that his office was involved in “deep conversations” with tribal casino operators over the scope of public safety during the pandemic. But he has not specified the details of those conversations. Meanwhile, the CGA is up in arms over the prospect of their tribal competition receiving a hefty house edge. CGA President Kyle Kirkland countered Gov. Newsom’s argument on tribal sovereignty with some choice words of his own, pulled from clauses in the tribal-state compact.

Kirkland quoted from the compact that tribes “shall not conduct Class III Gaming in a manner that endangers the public health, safety, or welfare.” He then appealed to the governor directly, saying “gambling facilities pose a risk to the health and safety of the public in certain counties, we ask that you call upon ALL gaming operators in the targeted counties to close.”

It now remains to be seen how the governor’s “deep conversations” will influence tribal casino operators.


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A Massachusetts native, blogger Angeline Everett grew up in the Allston neighborhood of Boston and earned a degree in casino management from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. After graduating, Angeline moved to Atlantic City where she joined the young team at the Borgata Casino as a compliance representative, while blogging on the side. After a few years in the back office, Angeline moved to the floor to work first at a casual poker dealer and later casual poker floor supervisor. Fascinated with games of chance since she was a child, Angeline currently divides her time between blogging and work on her first book.