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Despite coronavirus danger, this Miami Indian tribe not ready to shut down slot machines


Slot machines and the hotel at the Miccosukee casino in West Miami-Dade remained operating Friday evening, even as other gambling halls, movie theaters, parks, beaches and restaurants have shuttered to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

The Miccosukee tribe, which is a sovereign nation and is based on a federally designated reservation deep in the Everglades in West Miami-Dade, has resisted calls by local and state officials to close the casino — which is popular with older patrons that experts believe are most at risk from the deadly respiratory illness.

The tribe has closed its poker room, its in-person barrel drawings and its popular bingo operation. One cafeteria is providing food to guests who remain in the hotel, although room service has been stopped.

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Experts say the decision to remain open is ill-advised, given the close quarters in casinos, where slot machines are crowded together and viruses can lurk on machines’ handles and screens.

The Miccosukee Resort & Gaming, 500 SW 177th Ave, is also open to smoking. Early research in China has shown that smokers are susceptible to severe reaction to the virus, said Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, a domestic infectious disease epidemiologist at Florida International University.

“People need to know it’s not a safe environment to be in a casino, particularly if you’re older or have a respiratory disease or heart condition,” Trepka said.

The tribe, however, insists that its doing enough, heeding advice from federal health authorities and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs by asking patrons to engage in “social distancing” while employees are constantly disinfecting surfaces.

“We are a small tribe and we must be proactive to address any matter that may adversely affect our members and the public at large,” according to a Miccosukee press release on Friday night. “This virus knows no boundaries. We urge the general public to heed health official warnings and remain safe, secure and most of all healthy.”

The Miccosukees have also closed their tribal school and a “number of businesses” on its reservation. The tribal-owned golf course in Kendall and tourist airboat rides have also been shut down.

The decision to remain open was in stark contrast with Miami-Dade County, which Friday ordered all hotels closed, and South Florida’s bigger Indian tribe.

The Seminole tribe, which runs a series of casinos, including the Hard Rock in Broward County, stayed open most of this week even as casinos on state land began to close. But on Friday, the tribe announced it was closing all six of its casinos across the state.

They were to shut down by 6 p.m. Friday. “This decision was not taken lightly as Seminole Gaming employs nearly 14,000 Seminole Gaming team members in the state,” the tribe said in a news release. “The goal has been to protect their livelihood without jeopardizing public safety. We have now reached a point where we do not feel comfortable taking that risk.”

That the fiercely independent tribe has refused to close the casino, despite calls from public-health authorities, is not entirely surprising.

Over the decades, state prosecutors in Miami-Dade have clashed with the tribe over serving subpoenas on the reservation in a murder case against a Miccouskee member; illegal tribal roadblocks on a state road; and even getting tribal police reports in a fatal crash involving Indians that happened off the reservation.

Two years ago, Miccosukee tribal police seized a baby at a Kendall hospital, drawing criticism from elected leaders who said the tribe was overstepping its authority.

It was unclear Friday if the Bureau of Indian Affairs or the National Indian Gaming Commission, which regulates the tribal operations, would respond. Spokespeople for both organizations did not respond to requests for comment Friday evening.

The gaming commission, on its website, said it “will continue to monitor Indian gaming operations” through the pandemic and insisted that tribal gaming operations must “attest to its ability to ensure the public health and safety of employees and patrons.”

Gaming commission Chairman E. Sequoyah Simermeyer, on the website, said the agency has the power to close a gambling operation to “remedy the threat to public health.”

A spokeswoman for Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he spoke to Miccosukee Chairman Billy Cypress this week. But without an agreement to close the casino, Gimenez was forced to issue a video plea urging elderly residents to stay away.

“I have reached out to the Miccosukee Tribe because Miami-Dade does not have jurisdiction over casinos run by tribes,” Gimenez said Thursday, after announcing an order to close the county’s other casinos. “I’m asking our senior citizens to take personal responsibility and stay away from any large gatherings, whether it’s a casino or any other activity.”

This story was originally published March 20, 2020 6:38 PM.

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