UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY — Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort reopened for business on Monday and by so doing is believed to have become the first of the state’s tribal casinos to do so since the COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary shutdowns.

The noon opening was a new normal: Customers had their temperature checked before entering, staff and many customers wore face masks. Slot machines were separated by plexiglass shields and disinfected whenever a player left. The casino reduced its number of slot machines by one half to 584 to allow for social distancing space. It was limiting customers to no more than 780 people in the 71,000-square-foot facility.

“We chose today to reopen our facility based on the simple fact that we believe we have incorporated and put into place practices and protocols that ensure the safety of our employees and our guests who choose to come to entertain themselves at the Upper Sioux Community,” Kevin Jensvold, tribal chairman, told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.

“We all understand the dangers and risks associated with what we are doing,” he said, emphasizing that it was employing safety protocols that exceeded guidelines.

“We are not arrogant to believe we are any better suited than anybody else. We’re only the first to do so,” he said.

The chairman added that he believed waiting two to three months to reopen would accomplish nothing. The very same protocols would be implemented.

The news conference started minutes after the chairman received a call from the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. The chairman said the caller questioned if he knew of the governor’s executive order closing bars and restaurants.

“I take that as a direct affront and offense on behalf of my people,” Jensvold said.

Tribal leaders in the state have been in communication with the governor's office and the state Health Department during the pandemic, but the governor's executive orders do not apply to sovereign tribal nations.

The community was making its own decision on reopening as a sovereign nation, Jensvold said.

The chairman said the Upper Sioux Community had temporarily closed its gaming operations on March 18 at the request of Gov. Tim Walz. The governor with his executive orders has sought to slow the spread of COVID-19 as hospitals acquired supplies and prepared to handle a surge in patients.

Jensvold said he told the governor on a conference call held less than two weeks ago that the community intended to reopen operations May 18. He said he invited Walz to come and see how a competent tribal community could put in place the protocols that would accomplish what the governor wants for his own state.

“That invitation was met with silence,” he said.

Jensvold said the decision to reopen was not made due to a fiscal crisis, but he pointed to the economic challenges the closing has posed. The casino revenues are important to 1,500 people when considering all of its employees, tribal members and their families, he told reporters.

The gaming operations employ 350 people, with an annual payroll of $11 million. The operations are responsible for $10 million to $15 million in purchases for services and supplies annually, according to General Manager Barry Joannides.

The decision to temporarily close the operations in March was the most difficult he has had to make in his 15 years as tribal chairman, Jensvold said, pointing to the impact on families. Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort continued to provide health insurance to the employees during the shutdown.

The tribal board began discussing the reopening shortly after the closing, and reached consensus Friday to reopen May 18. Staff underwent extensive training last week to prepare for the new protocols. The protocols were outlined in a seven-sheet packet provided reporters, and cover everything from a six-foot separation of dining room tables to not allowing buffets.

Upper Sioux Community Police Chief and Emergency Manager Chris Lee said the protocols were adopted after reviewing guidelines from state, federal and even international health organizations. Customers are encouraged to wear masks, but it’s not required, he said. Some customers are unable to do so due to age or health issues, Lee said.

All but 15 employees have returned to work, according to Joannides. An equal number of employees were tested for symptoms ranging from sore throats to fevers. None tested positive for COVID-19. The chairman said testing will be ongoing. The facility has test kits on hand that will provide results within one-half hour to a day.

The facility also has plans in place to provide essential services to any employees who may need to be quarantined. It is also prepared to trace any contacts, Jensvold told reporters.

The Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort hotel has reopened, but its pool, sauna and exercise room remain closed. The convention center remains closed as well. The chairman said the goal is to eventually reopen the convention center, but he did not indicate that there was a target date to do so.

Joannides said tribal leaders and staff were uncertain as to how many customers would come on Monday, and guessed anywhere from nearly zero to house capacity. “A happy medium,” he said of the numbers seen during the first two hours.

He and the tribal chairman are unsure of how business will go. Along with the reduced numbers of slot machines, fewer dining tables and no card tables, Jensvold said gaming depends on discretionary income. Unemployment in the region is at 15 percent, he said.

Overall, Jensvold said he’s generally heard support for the reopening. “There’s enthusiasm in the state of Minnesota. Our neighbors trust us enough to do the job we need to do to live in this new world,” he said.

As a public service, we’ve opened this article to everyone regardless of subscription status. If this coverage is important to you, please consider supporting local journalism by clicking on the subscribe button in the upper right-hand corner of the homepage.