Spokane, Kalispel tribes impacted by coronavirus
With all revenues funding government and service, effects of shutdown are more acute
Last updated 4/30/2020 at 9:52am
WEST PLAINS – Like everyone else, the Spokane and Kalispel tribes have been feeling the impacts of COVID-19, physically and economically.
Particularly the latter, where shutting down of casinos and retail outlets has drastically reduced the revenue streams supporting essential services such as police and medical facilities.
Spokane Tribe of Indians Chairwoman Carol Evans told West Plains Chamber of Commerce members during a virtual stakeholders meeting April 22 that the state’s orders on March 16 required “special action” since tribes are sovereign nations governed by their own rules. Evans said that took the form of legislation, but mirrored what was going on around the state — issuing stay-at-home orders, social distancing restrictions, banning social gatherings and closing lakes and parks on the Tribe’s lands to the public.
Most of the Tribe’s over 1,000 employees were sent home, with many continuing to work from home. So far, no one has been laid off due to the measures.
“We continue to pay them,” Evans said. “We actually did not do any major layoffs; we continue to employ our employees to work from home or to stay home.”
Besides employees at the Tribe’s casinos in Chewelah and Airway Heights, those employees include members of the tribal government and other enterprises such as Spoko Fuel in Airway Heights. Essentials workers employed by the Tribe include police officers, emergency medical technicians along with those at child care centers — which are open only for essential workers.
Evans said they have continued to pay their employees through three shut down extensions, but with time, may have to look to potential furloughs.
“We hope that does not happen,” she added.
Evans said they are beginning to look at measures to reopen their facilities once allowed, including testing and “other procedures” to protect employees and customers. Some measures have been taken already, such as installation of plastic shields at registers at Spoko and at the trading post, along with increasing sanitization procedures, which are done every 20 minutes.
Some of the challenges with the reservation being in a rural area include broadband reception, something identified as serious before, but now “an acute problem.” Evans said the closure of the Tribe’s school in Wellpinit has led to students trying to distance learn via an already stressed and inadequate system. It has also limited residents’ telehealth capabilities.
One of the solutions Evans said they have looked at is a virtual telehealth parking lot developed by the health and human services department. Clients come to the clinic’s parking lot, are given an iPad and can participate in a telehealth session with providers inside the building.
Evans said they are looking at installing satellite systems on some housing developments to allow tenants to access broadband and internet this way. The Tribe is also taking steps to improve testing capabilities at its clinic with the installation of a new AVID machine that will increase capacity from 20 tests per day to one every 13 minutes.
Evans said they have only had two individuals test positive for the disease, both living off reservation.
Kalispel Chief Operating Officer Phil Haugen said the Tribe was going through many of the same issues as the Spokanes. When the state shutdown orders came out, they not only closed their facilities but did a “complete” sanitization top to bottom of Northern Quest Resort & Casino in Airway Heights.
“It’s been a tough time because we have three levels of employees here,” Haugen said. “We have essential, then the ones were furloughed and the ones we laid off, and we’ve done that with over 1,700 employees where we’ve either furloughed or laid them off.”
Haugen said this also impacts their families, who are considered team members as well.
Haugen added it’s a misconception that tribes are not taxed, and therefore possibly able to weather this type of financial stress.
“That’s entirely untrue,” he said. “We’re ac actually taxed 100 percent because everything we make here at this casino or any other of our businesses goes to running our essential government offices, anything from public safety to social services to education to all our government services.”
Haugen said they have confidence they be able to get through the economic situation and eventually reopen safely.
John McCallum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.