Navajo casinos see little play from Hardship checks
While rumors have been flying that some Diné are heading straight to the casino with their Hardship Program checks, if it’s true there’s a good chance they’re gambling off-reservation where there are fewer COVID-19 restrictions, according to Navajo Nation Gaming Enterprise CEO Brian Parrish.
While some observers have noted Navajo casino parking lots have been packed, Parrish said that has not translated into a significant boost in NNGE’s business, according to their financial analysis.
“If there has been a bump from the Hardship checks, it’s very small,” he said. “We’re not really seeing the lift in revenues. We’re running well below where we were prior to the pandemic.”
That’s largely because the NNGE’s four casinos are still operating at half capacity with full COVID-19 safety protocols, due to Navajo Nation COVID-19 emergency orders.
“We’re still at 50 percent with the COVID restrictions in place,” said Parrish. “We’ve got all these capacity limitations that we’re operating under that are keeping us from being able to accommodate a larger number of visitors.”
Parrish said the casinos also still require patrons and employees to wear masks, get temperature checks, social distance and provide visitor contact information for contact tracing.
“We still have all of our Plexiglass up,” he said. “We don’t have all our hotel rooms open. Our restaurants are limited. We have half of our food seats available.
“The capacity restrictions and all the safety protocols are limiting any incremental play that’s occurring from the checks,” he said. “They’re going elsewhere.”
NNGE’s casinos were closed entirely for most of 2020 and part of 2021 due to COVID-19.
Two properties were opened up to 25% in March of 2021 and all four casinos – Fire Rock, Flowing Water, Northern Edge and Twin Arrows – opened up to 50% last July.
However, Parrish said some casino patrons are choosing to go to off-rez casinos because of the COVID-19 restrictions.
“The concern is that people are potentially or most likely going to other casinos where they don’t have any of those restrictions in place,” he said. “They’re not coming to our properties.”
Most of the casinos off of the Navajo Nation are all fully open with limited COVID restrictions, said Parrish.
“They’re all wide open, doing huge business,” he said.
Parrish said he knows for sure a substantial number of NNGE casino patrons that used to visit all the time are not coming back yet, because he’s heard from them.
“There’s just a segment of the population out there that’s like, ‘We’ll be back, but not until the restrictions are eased,’” he said. “They’re going elsewhere.”
Parrish added that the Navajo Nation’s new non-smoking policy has not impacted NNGE’s business yet because they have been non-smoking due to COVID-19 since they were able to reopen.
“When the impact is going to be experienced by us is when the pandemic has passed and all the other casinos are back to allowing smoking,” he said. “At that point, we won’t be able to allow it. That is when we will see the impact of the ban.”
On the bright side, Parrish said that with all of the protocols and restrictions in place, those who are still concerned about COVID-19 safety are well protected at the NNGE casinos.
“We’re still at a hundred percent like it’s peak pandemic,” he said. “When Navajo is ready to ease restrictions, we will be prudent and careful and continue to follow the guidance established by Navajo Nation leadership.”
The NNGE also made a large investment in installing the ActivePure Technology air cleaning system throughout all of its casinos, which scrubs the air for COVID-19 and other harmful particles and contaminants.
“We have these units in all areas of our casinos – guest rooms, ballrooms – you name it, it’s in all of our facilities,” he said.
According to ActivePure’s website, the technology is proven to reduce the presence of COVID-19 in the air and on surfaces by 99.9 percent.
Parrish said an independent environmental sciences company tested the quality of internal air at Fire Rock Casino before and after the installation of the ActivePure units, and results showed that the air cleaning technology significantly reduced the presence of undesirable airborne particles.
“It has made a very positive difference and there’s science behind that claim,” he said. “It’s another layer of protection that really worked.”
Regardless, Parrish said as much as they would like to, unfortunately NNGE also can’t start planning large events at the casino properties until the limit for gatherings on the Navajo Nation, still at 50, is lifted.
“We’re still prevented or precluded from staging concerts or things like that, but we’d like to do that and give more people more reasons to come out and see us and spend time at the properties,” he said.
Parrish says, as it stands, even for group meetings, all protocols must be followed with tables and chairs parted six feet and everyone wearing masks.
“Everything’s cleaned,” he said. “Food service is boxed for any meetings. We’re taking that extra level of protection.”
All things considered, Parrish said based on COVID-19 data, he is still optimistic for the spring/summer season.
He believes with decreases in cases and hospitalizations and increased vaccination rates and community immunity being achieved across the U.S., the impact of COVID-19 should continue to diminish.
“All those indicators are tracking in a positive direction, meaning the virus is losing ground,” said Parrish. “We believe that’s going to continue and help everybody get back out.”
He said once restrictions can be eased and capacity can be increased, casino attendance will see another uptick.
“We need to have some of those things happen before we’re able to grow our business,” he said.