What It Means to Be the “First” Tribal Casino to Open After Closures

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Q&A with Laura Stensgar, Coeur d’Alene Casino, Chief Executive Officer

You’ve got to believe that everyone had their eyes on Coeur d’Alene Casino this past week. The casino had a soft opening on Monday, April 27 and a grand re-opening on May 1.

Located in Northern Idaho, they have a 300-room hotel and their gaming floor hosts more than 1,300 slot machines. Their guest profile changes slightly during the summer months as there are quite a few snow birds that return and more tourists. 78% of their guests are from the Eastern Washington and North Idaho region.

Per their press release of April 23, neither the Coeur d’Alene Reservation nor Benewah County have had any confirmed COVID-19 cases to date. Chairman Stensgar was quoted, “Based on local trends and the consistently low number of confirmed cases in the region, we believe we can safely start to reopen the reservation. Protecting lives and protecting livelihoods don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We have a plan that we believe can do both and frankly, it is time to take action.”

We are so thankful to our longtime friend and client Laura Stensgar, the CEO of Coeur d’Alene Casino, for agreeing to share with all of our readers what it has been like opening up in this historic time for our nation. It’s through collaboration and sharing that we can help our industry find the answers and you and your Tribe have taken the lead. ALL eyes are on you and the lessons you’re learning, thank you.

CHRIS: In just about every roundtable and webinar I’ve been in since your announcement, everyone has an opinion of the “first casino” to open up. I think it’s a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario right now. Laura, as of this interview, you will have been open for over a week. Please share what the last several days have looked like. What has been the most surprising for you?

LAURA: It was devastating to have to close our doors March 20, 2020. Gaming dollars are essential to provide funding for critical services on the reservation such as law enforcement, social services, public works, and Tribal government operations. These services benefit everyone in the region, not just Tribal members. We took care in studying our regional data and saw that we had a decline in Coronavirus cases, and hospitalizations. We saw there was an incline in recoveries and no deaths in our local county or reservation. So we established strict protocol to open our doors, to ensure safety for our employees, customers and community.

We partnered with our local nationally renowned health center, Marimn Health, to provide consultation and advisement to our protocols. We also followed federal and CDC guidelines. Our soft opening was Monday, April 27th. We had guests waiting at the door to come in at 9am. It was busy, but manageable. We quickly identified areas that needed to be modified and adjusted. Each day since opening we have increased in attendance. Our official re-grand opening was Friday, May 1. We intended to open the doors at 9am, we had a crowd waiting to come in at 7am. We opened our doors, we were steadily busy all day. At 2:30pm we were at capacity. We had to shut our reduced three entries to one and monitor capacity. We had the highest recorded coin-in since the property opened in 1993. We all were excited to be open.

The most surprising thing to me are the “masks.” It has been challenging to monitor and enforce wearing the masks. It has been challenging keeping up with the supply of providing the masks to our guests. There were a few instances that we had to turn guests away because we were out of masks and they did not have one. We created a video on how to wear the mask appropriately. How does one drink, smoke and eat while wearing the mask. It’s not surprising to me, but we’ve had some amazing instances of our employees going above and beyond accommodating our guests, and managing the protocols. They’ve put in long, grueling hours to provide a safe, credible, functional operation during these unprecedented times.

CHRIS: Okay, so you mentioned above that both staff and patrons being asked to wear masks. Are you providing masks for your guests? In reality, are they keeping them on, in between smoking, talking and drinking?

LAURA: Everyone from our guests to employees are required to wear masks at all times. Yes we are providing masks for our employees and guests, however, we ask that they provide their own. It has been challenging to enforce our guests to wear their masks at all times. We have surveillance monitoring guests and employees. All staff have been assigned to monitor guests and employees wearing their mask. We created a video for appropriate wear of the mask. Also showing how to drink and smoke with the mask on. The mask does have to be removed to eat. Once finished its back on. We have the video running on our gaming floor and back of the house.

CHRIS: Did you do an invited guest opening only or open to the public? Are you restricting capacity? Are you being aggressive in your marketing or letting it happen organically?

LAURA: We did announce our soft opening and it was somewhat confusing to the public. On social media people were trying to decipher what our soft opening included or didn’t include. We did not bother to clarify because we did need the soft opening to get our employees back in place, to adjust to the protocols, monitor our systems upgrade, organize and test machines. We did have our hosts invite our Idaho hosted gamers for our soft opening. We are restricting capacity based off of our percentage of play on our gaming floor. We are not being aggressive in our marketing. However, we will be promoting our recent $500,000 wide area progressive winner and the fact that we’ve paid millions in jackpots since opening. We will be more aggressive in marketing come June.

CHRIS: How has the support been from your larger community and from other Tribal entities? I understand from your press release that there have been low cases in the region. Have you received backlash that you may attract out of town guests, and therefore, increase the risk of your community?

LAURA: The fact that we paid our employees their wages and benefits while closed proved that we value our employees. It was essential that we get back to work and provide for our Tribe and its surrounding communities. The general public seemed to be in support of our efforts. We took great strides in developing strict protocol to safeguard our employees, guests and the general community.

CHRIS: In regards to PPEs, how hard was it for you to resource hand sanitizers, wipes and masks?

LAURA: It has been difficult to stay stocked on the masks. We have hired local tribal members to make masks and we’ve ordered through our local clinic and outside vendors. Hand sanitizer stands are scarce. We are well stocked on the hand sanitizer gel. We are back ordered on everything.

CHRIS: You mention in your press release that you have ongoing cleaning measures that include closing the casino from 3–7 a.m. daily for deep cleaning. Are you providing wipes for every customer to wipe down their machines before or after they play? Do you have custodians wiping down a machine as soon as a player leaves?

LAURA: We’ve always been known to have a clean casino. We are “super” clean now. All staff have been assigned to hit the floor on the hour to wipe down machines. Executives have been assigned busy times of the day to clean for three hours at a time. It is so important for the guests and employees to see us actively cleaning. And to see an executive taking on these duties is very impactful. We’ve created a culture that we care, and we will take all measures to provide a safe environment for all. On top of this we do close from 3-7am for deep cleaning. We have signage throughout the property promoting proper hand washing and importance of following our safety protocols.

CHRIS: Did all of your team members want to come back? What additional measures and or communication are you doing with them to reassure them that this is the right timing?

LAURA: The majority were happy to come back to work and they are very appreciative that we paid their wages and benefits while we were closed. We did try to work with those who could work from home. Or provide different work setting. A few chose to file for unemployment. We created a video to explain our Tribal Council and executives reasoning and importance for opening. We also stated what was expected of the employees. We explained how we established our protocols and how important it is to practice and enforce.

CHRIS: Part of your social distancing is opening up every other machine; did you do more than just turn off every other machine and pull some machines out?

LAURA: Our gaming director did re-design some of the machines to provide more spacing along with opening up every other machine. We are also looking into providing plexiglass between the machines.

CHRIS: How are reducing physical touchpoints? Have you added in any technology that you didn’t have before? Have you eliminated any technology that requires physical contact of a public machine?

LAURA: We have plexiglass at our rewards club, cashiers, restaurants and hotel front desk. We use thermometers to check guests and employees temperature. We did order thermal thermometers they did not work well. We take extra effort to wipe down all ATMs/kiosks.

CHRIS: Who is the arbiter of social distancing at your property? No one wants to be the cleanliness police but guests have to turn to someone if they don’t feel safe or someone is “in their space.” If someone is not practicing social distancing, how have you prepared your floor slot to handle this? Do you have your security guards doing health checks at the door?

LAURA: All employees have been assigned to kindly ask the guests to properly wear their mask. If a guest is insistent on not wearing the mask, security is called. We have had to remove a few guests because they refused to wear the mask. We explain that it is vital that masks are worn at this time to ensure our safety, the guests and our ability to remain open. We have temporarily closed our buffet and OTB. We’ve asked those employees, along with other inactive departments such as valet, cultural tourism and bussing to help with cleaning and temperature/mask door check.

CHRIS: How are you feeding your players? What has changed from the food outlets? There’s been talk about no self-serve beverage stations, no salt and pepper shakers. I know this is down to the nitty gritty detail, but this is what everyone is wondering how these tactics will be deployed.

LAURA: All our restaurants are open but our buffet. We have spatial seating. We have disposable menus. We do not have salt and pepper shakers out on the table unless requested. Our employee buffet is closed. However we do offer prepackaged lunch, sack lunch, and plastic ware. We have spatial seating in our lounge as well.

Special thanks to Laura Stensgar for taking the time to talk with TG&H during this critical time. If you would like to share news about how your casino is preparing to open, please drop me a line at [email protected]. We can all learn from one another.

For more details on the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel’s Health and Safety protocols, visit https://www.cdacasino.com/covid19/.

Christine Faria

Christine Faria