HANKINSON, N.D. — Ro Rubio believes people are ready to come back to Dakota Magic Casino.
In the past, the casino was often packed on the weekends, serving as a gathering spot for the surrounding community as well as the lifeblood of the tribe.
Rubio, the director of marketing for Dakota Magic near Hankinson, N.D., and Sisseton, S.D., described the crowds so far as "decent." The casino reopened on June 6 after Gov. Doug Burgum allowed a phased-in reopening.
What people will see, though, is a different casino look from when it closed for three months starting on March 22 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
"We want to keep everyone safe," Rubio said. "We want to err on the side of safe, so we are taking it slow, one week at a time."
In doing so, they require everyone to enter through the main entrance where customers answer a few health-related questions and have their temperatures taken. The same goes for the 400-member staff that had all returned to work with the casino as of Monday, June 15, to keep it open 24 hours on the weekends and 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. during the week.
Rubio said about 90% of guests are wearing the highly recommended masks, and staff are required to wear them.
Plexiglas was installed between some of the slot machines, with others arranged differently to allow for more social distancing. After a person is done at a machine, they are urged to push the service button and cleaning staff will come around.
No table games, such as blackjack, have started up yet, and the bar lounge and buffet are closed. The restaurant is open, however, with tables moved apart, and people can still get a drink at the bar.
Rubio expects blackjack and other table games could return in about a month, and they are looking at starting sports betting in the next couple months to boost operations.
The casino's hotel and golf course are also open.
At the state's other five casinos, reopening has been different.
Prairie Knights Casino & Resort in Fort Yates on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation is open seven days a week, 24 hours a day with similar restrictions as at Dakota Magic.
On the shores of Lake Sakakawea, 4 Bears Casino & Lodge is open Thursday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and table games are being allowed.
In northeast North Dakota, the Spirit Lake Casino & Resort on the shores of Devils Lake opened June 1 with restrictive regulations in place and shorter hours — 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily — to allow deep cleaning overnight
The only casino remaining closed is in Belcourt on the Turtle Mountain Reservation. No time frame for reopening has been given, although the tribe has reopened its Grand Treasure Casino near Williston on the opposite side of the state in far northwest North Dakota.
At Spirit Lake, General Manager Paul Matheny said the customer base is down so far with probably only about 200 people showing up on the weekend nights, almost all coming from within a 90-mile radius.
Thus, they have hired back only about 175 of their 285 employees.
"We're getting there little by little," he said.
The casino has about 600 slot machine chairs, but only about 300 are open. Table games also remain closed.
The resort's marina has been popular, Matheny said, with people "taking advantage of a fun time on the lake."
The general manager doesn't know how long restrictions will last, but he said operations likely won't return to normal until a vaccine or cure for COVID-19 is found.
Scott Davis, the executive director of the North Dakota Indian Affairs Commission, said testing has been key to allow reopening of the casinos across the state.
The majority of testing supplies, he said, have come from the state, and there has been mass testing on the reservations with cooperation between the state health department, Indian Health Services and tribal clinics.
The number of cases of coronavirus on the state's reservations are "very manageable with pretty low rates," he said.
With testing, he said, rates can go up but without it "you don't know where you are at."