California cardrooms want guv to close tribal casinos


California’s cardroom operators want their governor to order the state’s tribal casinos to close, ostensibly to “protect the health and safety of Californians,” but mainly because there’s no love lost between these factions. 

Last week, Kyle Kirkland, president of the California Gaming Association (CGA), sent a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom regarding his July 1 order that forced all non-essential retail businesses – including cardrooms – in 19 counties to close for at least three weeks following a spike in COVID-19 infections.  

The state’s tribal casinos are run by sovereign nations that aren’t subject to Newsom’s orders, and Kirkland’s letter notes that “all tribal casinos in the targeted counties remain open.” Kirkland calls this “inconsistent” and suggests that Newsom actually has “the authority to order ALL casino operations, including tribal casinos, to cease operations in the affected counties.”

Kirkland cites a clause in the standard tribal-state gaming compact that says tribes “shall not conduct Class III Gaming in a manner that endangers the public health, safety, or welfare.” Kirkland argues that if Newsom truly believes “that gambling facilities pose a risk to the health and safety of the public in certain counties, we ask that you call upon ALL gaming operators in the targeted counties to close.” [Emphasis in the original.]

Newsom said July 1 that his office was having “deep conversations” with tribal operators to arrive at some “understanding” regarding working together to combat COVID-19. But Newsom has yet to provide any update on how those conversations were going.

Shortly after Kirkland sent his letter, local media quoted staff at the Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Sacramento saying management wasn’t enforcing social distancing requirements or mask use by all guests. A casino spokesperson disputed these claims, saying Thunder Valley’s health & safety protocols were appropriate and that random tests of casino staff had all come back negative.  

The longstanding enmity between the cardrooms and tribes was on full display in the recent fight over California legalizing sports betting. The tribes won that round, successfully derailing a state-sponsored initiative that included legal cover for the cardrooms’ so-called player-banked card games, something the tribes view as a non-starter.

While the CGA may view the tribes as displaying a cavalier attitude toward health and safety rules, the tribes could easily retaliate by noting the cardrooms’ demonstrated inability to conform to state and federal anti-money laundering standards (not to mention jumping the gun on offering sports betting).