2021 not off to a good start for many Navajo Nation casino employees

the dealer's hands are holding a deck of cards and placing chips on the poker table

Despite most tribal casinos in the U.S. not having to close their doors, unlike their commercial counterparts, because of COVID-19, many still decided to take precautions to help control the global pandemic. Some tribal casino operators were able to maintain some level of normalcy during the chaos, but others suffered. The Navajo Nation, a native Indian tribe that operates casinos in Arizona and New Mexico, falls into the latter group and 2021 isn’t getting off to a good start for its casinos. Operated through Navajo Gaming, the four gambling venues have furloughed over 1,100 employees, and permanent closures may be on the way.

the dealer's hands are holding a deck of cards and placing chips on the poker table

The layoffs were announced on New Year’s Eve, not a great way to celebrate having survived one of the most brutal economic years in recent history. The closure announcement impacts the Twin Arrows casino in Arizona and New Mexico’s Fire Rock, Flowing Water and Northern Edge. Navajo Gaming Interim CEO Brian Parrish said in making the announcement, “Due to the extended closure, since March 17, 2020, our business operations have been severely impacted, and as a result, we must make very difficult financial and personnel decisions.”

As a result of the closure, only 165 employees will still be working, but that could change quickly, too. The tribe is monitoring how quickly things turn around and, if COVID-19 can be brought under control, the properties may be reopened. If not, they will be permanently shut down and the remainder of the workforce will be let go, as well. 

Should that shutdown become reality, the four cities the casinos serve stand to lose around $500 million total in annual revenue and economic output. That would make an already tough situation more difficult, as states are already dealing with major budget shortfalls because of the coronavirus situation. 

However, the Navajo feel they should be seen as an example of how to overcome diversity, with Navajo Gaming Board Chair Quincy Natay explaining, “Our mission is to enhance the quality of life of the Navajo people by growing a successful gaming economy. The Nation’s vision took years to build, but the Nation has been successful. If it allows its gaming industry to fail, a permanent closure will cause a long-term setback for Navajo economic development, even if it eventually reopens. The Nation has faced and overcome world wars, the Long Walk, the burning of crops and killing of herds, the theft of our land and forced relocation, the 1918 flu, Tuberculosis, and the theft of children by boarding schools. COVID-19 has had devastating costs and without Navajo leadership, it, no doubt, would have been worse. However, we are a resilient and adaptable Nation. We rise to the occasion, sacrifice, and find a balance.”