Despite issuing an order mandating the wearing of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, the order doesn’t extend to local tribal governments, the city of Tulsa said on Thursday
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum signed the mask mandate Thursday after it was passed by city councilors on Wednesday evening by a 7-2 vote. The order came after weeks of steadily increasing coronavirus cases in Oklahoma and, in particular, Tulsa County, which has more confirmed cases than any other county in the state.
Michelle Brooks, city of Tulsa director of communications, told The Frontier in an email Thursday afternoon that the order doesn’t apply to tribal governments.
The Hard Rock Casino, operated by the Cherokee Nation, has required its guests wear masks since it reopened last month. Employees at the River Spirit Casino, operated by the Creek Nation, and the Osage Casino told guests on Thursday that masks inside their facilities were still optional.
Asked by a Frontier reporter on Thursday if masks were mandatory inside the River Spirit Casino, a casino employee said there had been a discussion about that topic, and that guests were not being required to wear masks.
An employee who answered the phone at the Osage Casino responded to the same question by saying “No sir.”
Tulsa city councilors debated for hours on Wednesday over the wording of the original mask mandate before briefly adjourning and modifying the ordinance. One issue that was raised during the virtual city council meeting was the potential for fines and citations for people who were found to not be wearing a mask.
When the ordinance was finally passed, it contained no specific punitive measures for those who don’t follow the mandate. Tulsa police said in a statement Thursday that while they couldn’t cite someone for not wearing a mask in public, they could enforce a trespassing violation against someone who refused to wear a mask in a location that required one.
“If a business or property owner wishes to file trespassing charges upon another citizen, responding officers will issue a citation on behalf of the business or property owner and the complainant must sign the citation and be willing to appear in court to testify before a judge,” the police statement said.
Casino coronavirus precautions vary by location
Getting into the Cherokee Nation’s Hard Rock Casino is not as easy as it looks. Located in Catoosa, about a 15-minute drive east from Tulsa’s downtown, the area’s first mega casino was built in 2009 and has numerous entrances across its 200,000 square foot casino floor.
But like many businesses, the coronavirus pandemic has shifted the normal course of action for the casino. The expansive parking lot is now filled with traffic cones that route everyone to a single destination: a group of employees near the front entrance who conduct temperature checks and give masks to everyone who wants to enter.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been easy,” said Hard Rock Casino General Manager Martin Madewell. “But we think it’s important everyone who comes in here feels safe, whether that’s a guest or our staff members.”
Oklahoma casinos have a massive economic footprint in the state. In 2019, the American Gaming Commission issued a report that said Oklahoma casinos employ more than 75,000 people and register nearly $10 billion in “economic impact,” a figure that totals wages, taxes and casino profit.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit the state early this spring, the Tulsa area’s three largest casinos — Hard Rock Casino to the east, the Creek Nation’s River Spirit Casino to the south and the Osage Casino to the north — all dutifully closed their doors.
All three opened again within a month of each other, with the Osage Casino opening May 15, River Spirit Casino opening June 1 and the Hard Rock Casino opening on June 11.
And all three locations, which if plotted out on a map, form a triangle with each casino about a 15-mile drive from the others, have somewhat different safety precautions in place.
The Hard Rock Casino is the strictest of the three, though that’s by design, Madewell said.
“We decided that we didn’t want to be in a position where we would have a certain set of restrictions and then later have to strengthen them,” he told The Frontier during a recent interview. The Cherokee Nation allowed a Frontier reporter into the Hard Rock Casino to take pictures and conduct interviews during a walkthrough in early July. Neither the Creek Nation or the Osage Nation responded to requests by The Frontier for a casino tour.
“We felt like that would be a bit like going backwards,” Madewell said. “We thought that if we had very strict standards right off the bat that it would ensure everyone was safe and felt safe for as long as the pandemic is going on and we are open in this new environment.”
The Hard Rock Casino is the only of the three large casinos that mandates masks, providing guests with a mask if they do not have one.
Inside the casino, chairs have been removed from every other machine in order to help force some sense of social distancing. To keep people from just moving chairs next to each other, casino staff have turned off every other machine so that they no longer operate.
Further, more than 150 employees work to clean machines and ensure social distancing is taking place inside the casino. Madewell said the casino has repurposed some employees whose jobs no longer exist into members of the “Safe and Sound Clean Team,” staff members in yellow shirts who spray down machines and keep surfaces clean.
“Every department has dedicated some staff members to the team,” Madewell said.
About 15 miles to the west of the Hard Rock Casino is the Osage Casino. Dubbed “Tulsa’s downtown casino,” the Osage Casino actually sits about six miles north of downtown at the end of the L.L. Tisdale Parkway.
The casino underwent a massive $160 million expansion that finished in 2019 and greatly expanded the gaming options provided by the tribe, though it’s still a relatively cramped interior compared to the more expansive Hard Rock and River Spirit casinos.
Outside the Osage Casino, there’s little indication there’s a pandemic going on at all. Electronic billboards on the exterior walls advertise upcoming concerts and a standup set by comedian Marlon Wayans. Inside, casino staff is masked, but few of the guests are, and there are no mandatory temperature checks before entrance.
Every other machine is turned off and chairs have been removed to promote social distancing, but guests occasionally can be seen moving chairs next to each other while gaming. There’s a sign above the black jack tables that encourage social distancing and signage inside the restroom that promotes hand washing and urges guests to clean their hands for 20 seconds.
Located near 91st Street and Riverside Drive, the Creek Nation River Spirit Casino is the glitziest of Tulsa’s three big casinos. Situated alongside the Arkansas River, the casino was shut down for an extended period in the summer of 2019 following record floods that saw parts of the casino floor filled with water.
But there’s no sign of any of that today, and the casino’s interior looks as glamorous as ever.
Everyone who enters the casino has their temperature checked, and the entrance to the casino has been narrowed to a single entry point. The casino exit has been moved to ensure those exiting the casino don’t come into contact with someone trying to enter who has not been temperature checked.
Masks and gloves are optional but are offered to everyone who enters. There are signs throughout the casino floor encouraging guests to wash their hands, social distance from each other and to wear masks. Even some of the games display images that encourage guests to wear masks and wash their hands repeatedly.
Unlike the Hard Rock and Osage Casinos, every slot machine on the River Spirit floor has been left on, though every other chair has been removed in order to keep guests separated from one another. During a recent visit to the casino by a Frontier reporter, there appeared to be little enforcement of this, however, and some guests could be seen sitting next to each other. Guests were also seated next to each other at some of the busier blackjack tables that were still open on the casino floor as well, though each table mandated a three guest maximum. All blackjack dealers wore masks, but the guests often didn’t.
Signage throughout the casino urged guests to “Play It Smart,” and encouraged social distance, hand washing, and masks.