Ken Choke, Chairman, Nisqually Indian Tribe

Ken Choke, Chairman
Nisqually Indian Tribe
Nisqually Red Wind Casino in Olympia, WA

Initially, COVID-19 took us by surprise, of course, as it did a number of not only tribal nations, but also America in general. What we developed here ten years ago was an Emergency Management Division for the tribe, which prior to my appointment as Chairman, I was and am the Director of. Through courses with the Emergency Management Institute and other opportunities through FEMA, we’ve been able to lay down the groundwork to assist our members during the COVID-19 situation. The pandemic itself is something we’ve never experienced in my generation, but I know generations in the past have experienced this. I like to share stories with my elders and get guidance on how past pandemics were handled. Fortunately, all of our enterprises and departments came together to assist our tribal nation in the beginning, and continue to do so to this day.

Initially, our strategy was to follow certain guidelines at the state and federal level, as well as the tribal level. We’ve had the opportunity to speak with other tribal leaders, and of course, governmental leaders, and work in collaboration with them.

Our casino shut down in the first part of April, but has since re-opened. We’ve worked in collaboration with the Governor and the orders he imposed on Washingtonians here. We have a good standing relationship with Governor Inslee. Prior to his being elected Governor, he took the opportunity to participate in our annual tribal Canoe Journeys, where we travel the waters here in the South Puget Sound.

Before we even considered the operation open up again, certain guidelines were set in place by the tribe, and then we worked with management at the casino who we have a good working relationship with. We wanted to ensure not only the safety of employees and patrons of the casino, but also because the casino is located on the reservation, we had to have a solid plan developed prior to considering reopening.

Currently, the casino is in phase three. All guests are required to wear face masks, and the casino has implemented a no smoking policy except for in designated smoking areas. Guest temperatures are taken and we utilize facial recognition so that in the event we do have an initial outbreak here on, God forbid, we can actually narrow it down to individuals that were present during when a potential situation broke out in the casino.

On the tribal side, we are only at phase two, so we are not at 100% operation, but we do have enough employees to keep the ball rolling and provide the resources to membership. For casino employees that don’t feel safe in their role at this point, we have implemented a plan to where they can be rotated into different departments and different areas.

Throughout the casino we utilize hand sanitizers, wipes, and have a maintenance staff that continuously wipes down the machines to keep everybody safe. We do our due diligence in that aspect, and haven’t received any negative complaints from the public. They are happy with the fact that they have a place to go, but also recognize that the safety precautions we take not only protect themselves and the employees, but also the tribal community itself.

We’ve kept our RezMart up and operational throughout the pandemic, but of course, put up plexiglass and have been requiring face masks. The Emergency Management Department helped set all of these kinds of guidelines and has worked ensure everyone understands how important it is to have all of these precautions in place.