Report: Michigan AG Threatens Penalties As Tribes Look To Open Casinos

Posted on May 8, 2020

There seems to be no contention that Michigan tribal casinos are free to open, despite Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declaring a statewide stay-home order through May 28.

While the state’s 12 autonomous Native American tribes are free to open casino doors, can many of their customers and workers enter those facilities when they do?

A published letter from the office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel to an Upper Peninsula tribal community that was planning to open its casino this week contends they cannot.

The day it received the letter, the Hannahville Indian Community delayed its casino reopening. The tribe instead announced plans to open May 16, well before the stay-at-home order expires.

Further discussions between state government officials and Michigan’s tribes are reportedly planned for next week while tribal casinos continue to sit idle during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Casino changed reopening plans this week

Bridge Magazine, a non-profit news agency, published the letter along with a report about next week’s meetings.

It was dated Tuesday, one day before the Hannahville tribe planned to open Island Resort and Casino in Harris, near Escanaba, which has been closed since March 21.

The U.P. facility would have been the first of Michigan’s 26 casinos to reopen since they all closed by March 22 because of the pandemic.

However, citing “unforeseen circumstances,” the group on Tuesday announced a delay in reopening until May 16.

Letter asked tribe to reconsider opening casino

The letter, from by Nessel’s chief of operations Christina Grossi, acknowledges the economic hardship for the tribes.

“The significant sacrifices the Tribe has already made could be completely undone by prematurely returning to normal operations, even with some modifications,” it reads.

While the governor has no authority over sovereign people on sovereign land, the letter says some customers and employees could be exposed to “potential civil and criminal penalties.” According to the letter, those people include “non-Indians, Indians who reside inside of the Tribe’s Indian country but are not enrolled members of the Tribe, and enrolled tribal citizens in Michigan outside of the Tribe’s Indian country.”

The letter details the penalty, as adopted by the director of the Department of Health and Human Services, of a $1,000 fine “per violation or per day the violation continues.”

Meeting could be step toward cooperation

According to the Bridge report, there is a conference call scheduled early next week with Whitmer, Nessel and Michigan tribal leaders.

Jonodev Chaudhuri, an attorney who served as chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission from 2013 until 2019, said states and tribes have been working together positively during this time and has hope for next week’s meetings in Michigan.

“The best practice for having a coordinated effort is to approach these issues with mutual respect,” he said. “The hope is that together these sovereigns will continue to work to protect the public while also addressing real economic considerations on the ground.”

Another U.P. casino announced it will open ‘soon’

With the Hannahville tribe announcing a May 16 reopening, Northern Waters Casino Resort in Watersmeet announced on its Facebook page that it will be opening soon and also detailed its safety measures.

Those included prescreening prior to admission, a maximum capacity of 150 guests and the requirement of masks being worn.

Meanwhile, Kewadin Casinos had the same May 16 date set early Friday for its five U.P. locations but announced in the afternoon it was moving its reopening date to June 1.

The other U.P. casinos, a pair of Bay Mills facilities in Brimley and Ojibwa Casinos in Baraga and Marquette, have not announced their current reopening plans.

COVID-19 hit Michigan hard, but not the U.P.

Michigan has been one of the country’s hardest-hit states by the novel coronavirus, with the state death toll nearing 4,400 as of Friday.

However, most of the cases and deaths have been from the Metro Detroit area.

In Menominee County, where Island Resort and Casino is located, there have been six reported COVID-19 cases and zero deaths, according to the state’s information.

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Matt Schoch

A Michigan native, Matt has worked at newspapers in Michigan, Missouri and the Virgin Islands. A versatile sports reporter, Matt has covered sailing on the Great Lakes, cricket in the Caribbean, high school and pro playoffs, and the Olympics in Rio. He's also the host of the Locked On Pistons Podcast and producer of a documentary on Emoni Bates. A former blackjack dealer, Matt has studied the industry from all sides.

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