By SCOTT MCKIE B.P. ONE FEATHER STAFF In the current, unpredictable landscape surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, things change sometimes hourly and that is no different for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). Important announcements regarding EBCI tribal operations and the phased re-openings of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and the Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River in Murphy were disseminated on Friday, May 8. In a memo to EBCI tribal employees on the morning of May 8, Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed announced that the re-opening of tribal operations is now pushed back to Monday, June 8. It was announced earlier in the week that tribal employees would report back on Monday, May 18. “The coronavirus has changed our lives in ways we could not have anticipated just a few months ago, and the ‘new normal’ is a frequently changing landscape that presents new challenges every day,” Chief Sneed said in his memo. “We have to remember to be patient and flexible to meet those challenges – and we can meet them – because we are blessed with outstanding employees who are committed to their jobs and to doing their best for the Tribe.” The memo continued, “I have had extensive discussions with tribal leadership, public health officials, and our Emergency Management team, and I have heard the concerns of our tribal members. The result is that I have updated our timeline for bringing tribal employees back to work.” Chief Sneed said the extension gives tribal programs more time to “develop necessary safety measures such as social distancing” and it allows tribal employees to find “alternate sources of child care if needed”.
Harrah’s Cherokee officials announced in a press release its phased re-opening which will start on May 18. “Areas such as the gaming floor, hotel, and some restaurants where social distancing can be practiced will be the first to open with significant limitations on occupancy. Areas where social distancing is not possible such as the spa, valet, poker, buffet, and concerts will have to remain closed until it is appropriate to re-open.” According to information from the EBCI Joint Information Center, phase 1 of the casino opening, which is scheduled to last two weeks, will allow the following: * patrons by invitation only, with one guest * EBCI tribal members, with one guest * patrons will be screened prior to entering facilities * restaurants will open at 20 percent capacity * one hotel tower open at 30 percent capacity “This is uncharted territory for the casino industry, but what is clear is that when we return to work, it will not be exactly as it was prior to closing,” said Brooks Robinson, Harrah’s Cherokee senior vice president and general manager. “We look forward to welcoming back our guests and team members, also understanding that social distancing is going to be a part of our business and lives for awhile.” Harrah’s Cherokee officials also noted, “To make social distancing possible, access to the casinos will be by invitation only at first with small groups of customers receiving the invitation by email starting as early as May 13. During this initial phase, only invited guests will be able to make hotel reservation or access the properties. The number of invitations may increase over time as it becomes appropriate to do so. Members of the EBCI will also be able to access both casinos during this period of time.” Harrah’s Cherokee employees will be required to wear face coverings during their shift. Prior to starting each shift, employees will also be given a temperature check. The day before these major announcements, Chief Sneed issued Executive Order No. 12 in which he outlines the re-opening of retail businesses on the Qualla Boundary. The order states in part, “After extensive consultation with EBCI leadership, public health officials, and Emergency Management services, the Tribe has developed a plan to cautiously and safely re-open the Qualla Boundary for business. In light of the low number of positive cases in our community, identified through testing at the Cherokee Indian Hospital, and consistent with the metrics put in place by countless municipalities to re-open, I am hereby instituting the following steps for re-opening: * Retail establishments, hotels, and campgrounds may re-open at 50 percent capacity while following strict cleaning and social distancing procedures on May 15. * Outdoor recreation areas including Mingo Falls, Soco Falls, picnic areas, and tribal backroads will re-open on May 15 for public access.” The order goes on to state, “The opening date for salons, theaters, spas, bowling alleys, public playgrounds, and barber shops will be announced at a later date.”