Ho-Chunk casinos roll dice to rebound from COVID-19 losses

Native American casinos nationwide may lose $22.4 billion from closings, association says
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(Ho-Chunk Nation photo)

BLACK RIVER FALLS, Wis. (WKBT) —The Ho-Chunk Nation’s next budget normally would take effect July 1, but the COVID-19 pandemic’s shuttering the tribe’s six casinos have blown that deadline, a tribe official said.
“It’s hard to budget when we don’t know what actual revenue we have to budget with,” Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle said.
“It’s really pretty much crippled our tribal economy,” WhiteEagle told the Wisconsin State Journal. “The casinos are really the bread and butter of our funding.”
The tribe’s six Wisconsin casinos generate more than 80% of its annual operating budget, he said. The budget supports a host of tribal programs, including economic development, infrastructure, health care and education for its roughly 7,000 members. The Ho-Chunk Legislature can’t settle on a new budget until it has assessed the ultimate effect of the closings, he said.
The future depends on how well the casinos rebound as they reopen, WhiteEagle indicated.
Ho-Chunk Gaming reopened its Madison casino late in May with less than a third of its 1,300 slot and poker machines operating, in accordance with Dane County’s public health guidelines. Visitors and staff must submit to temperature checks and wear masks.
The tribe also has opened its Nekoosa casino, and it plans to open its facilities in Black River Falls, Wisconsin Dells and Wittenberg on Monday, June 29, with strict requirements to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The Ho-Chunk Nation isn’t alone, as the National Indian Gaming Association says that about 241 tribes nationwide, including the 11 in Wisconsin, could end up losing about $22.4 billion — more than half of their projected revenues for this year. The association strives to protect the welfare and sovereignty of tribes.
Tribal casinos in Wisconsin made nearly $1.3 billion collectively in gross revenue in the 2018-19 fiscal year, based on nearly $17.6 billion in wagers, according to figures the Journal cited from the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
Hours for Ho-Chunk casinos opening June 29 will be:
• Black River Falls — 8 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Wednesdays, and until 2 a.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, with about 200 patrons permitted on the floor at one time. It will feature more than 300 slots, but table games and bingo will not be available, according to its website.
• Wisconsin Dells — 9 a.m. to 1 a.m. Sundays-Saturdays.
• Wittenberg — 8 a.m. to midnight Sundays through Thursdays, and until 2 a.m. Fridays-Saturdays.
The following guidelines will be enforced:
• Masks are required for employees, guests and visitors on the gaming floor.
• Everyone will have temperatures taken.
• Guests, employees and vendors will be asked to use hand sanitizer upon entry.
• Smoking will not be allowed in the casino or break rooms. Designated smoking areas outside will be marked.
• An entrance will be designated for smokers, and patrons must be hand stamped to re-enter that entrance.
• Plastic partitions will be at all points of transaction.
• Hand sanitizer will be located at each point of transaction and throughout the gaming floor.
• Employees who come in close contact with guests will be issued face shields in addition to masks.
• All returning staffers are taking safety and COVID-19 training.
Physical distancing
• Entrances and exits will be designated as one way in and one way out.
• Social distancing markings will be on floor near all points of transaction.
• Only one entrance for guests, and one entrance designated for employees and visitors.