Gov. Andrew Cuomo has defended the decision to keep New York's four commercial casinos, including del Lago Resort & Casino in Seneca County, closed for more than four months. Last week, he said casinos aren't needed to "maintain survival."
But that sentiment hasn't extended to a relatively small group of state employees who are assigned to Native American-run casinos. The state Gaming Commission confirmed Tuesday that these workers, who are employed as gaming inspectors, are back on the job.
A source with knowledge of the inspectors' work told The Citizen that they returned when the Oneida and Seneca nations began reopening their casinos in June. Because the casinos are on sovereign land, they aren't subject to the state's directive.
The inspectors, the source added, have concerns. While the Native American casinos included health and safety guidelines in reopening plans, the inspectors worry about the number of people allowed in the casinos and the lack of mask compliance. The state employees, the source confirmed, are provided masks and other personal protective equipment.
The Civil Service Employees Association, a union representing the state gaming inspectors, has provided masks and face coverings for the members, according to a spokesperson.
"We hope that the public continues to comply with mask and social distancing requirements as well as the temperature checks to ensure patrons and staff remain healthy during this pandemic," said Nicholas Newcomb, a CSEA communications specialist. "Our safety and health department has worked hand-in-hand with members to make sure any return to work questions and concerns are properly addressed.
When asked by The Citizen what protections are in place for the inspectors, a state Gaming Commission responded by email, "Each of the assigned state employees are following the guidance and guidelines issued by the N.Y. State Department of Health."
Even though the establishments are on tribal land, the state Gaming Commission explains on its website that it "maintains a constant 24-hour presence" at the Class III Native American casinos. Class III gaming, according to the Indian Gaming Regulation Act, includes facilities with slot machines, table games and other forms of wagering. The role of the inspectors is to "ensure the fair and honest operation of such gaming activities."
The state also performs background checks on casino employees and entities that do business with the casino to "ensure their suitability," the commission's website states.
But the inspectors returning to work at Native American casinos highlights the disconnect between their status and the state's policy regarding its commercial casinos. The four casinos — del Lago, Resorts World Catskills, Rivers Casino in Schenectady and Tioga Downs Casino Resort — have been closed since March 16.
At the time of the shutdown, which was done in partnership with other states, Cuomo said the goal was to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
When the state implemented its phased reopening plan in May, the casinos were uncertain where they would be included in the process. Despite speculation they would be included in the later phases, the casinos weren't one of the eligible businesses that could reopen in any phase.
In early July, Cuomo said the state was continuing to study when and how casinos could reopen. Last week, he offered no timetable for the reopening of casinos.
"It's an issue of density, the likelihood of compliance and the essential nature of the business," he said.
Politics reporter Robert Harding can be reached at (315) 282-2220 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @robertharding.