Casino comes back

Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel return after pandemic shutdown

A view inside the gaming floor of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel during the COVID-19 shutdown in spring of 2020. (Photo Provided)

For 105 days the largest employer in Tama County remained closed while states and nations battled the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. The decision to close the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel (MBCH) came after a joint meeting between the Meskwaki Tribal Council and the casino’s Executive Management team on Monday, March 16. Leadership continued to assess the public health risks throughout the shutdown and in late May announced a tentative reopen date of July 1st. Around the same time Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation allowing amusement parks, casinos, bowling alleys, and other entertainment venues to reopen. The majority of the casinos throughout the State of Iowa chose to open their doors within a week of the governor’s proclamation but leaders on the Meskwaki Settlement opted for a more cautious approach and chose July 1st as its target date to begin the first phase of their reopening.

Now more than a week removed from opening back up, team members and guests at MBCH are all navigating a changed landscape but are nonetheless hopeful and glad to be back.

MBCH General Manager Dirk Whitebreast recalls the COVID-19 coronavirus first hitting their radar during January and February, particularly when casinos in Macau, China began to close amid the outbreak there. Then as infections began to show up in the U.S. and other large organizations and events shut down operations, it soon became apparent where the crisis was leading.

“It was an obvious decision because at that time there was so much that was unknown,” said Whitebreast. “We knew that if it’s as bad as we thought it was, it’s clear that the casino could become a vector for a thing like COVID-19 and that’s not what we wanted for the Tribe or the surrounding communities.”

For the hundreds of employees that populate the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel’s workforce, the abrupt halt of operations would immediately bring questions about how they and their and families would survive and when an opportunity to return to work would become available.

Brian Ehrig, MBCH Food & Beverage Director, poses for a photo following the reopening of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel. (Photo Provided)

Brian Ehrig of Gladbrook, IA, who is known by most folks at MBCH as “Boomer”, has been employed at the casino for over 20 years. He now serves as the Food and Beverage Director at MBCH, overseeing more than 200 employees that staff MBCH’s entire food service operation. He vividly remembers his thoughts when he found out the Casino would be temporarily closing.

“It’s your worst nightmare,” recounted Ehrig. “Hearing your business is closed with 200 plus team members counting on coming to work each day. It’s a lot of people and a lot of mouths to feed. But to hear that our company immediately offered to not only pay staff their base pay but also their tips and their health insurance. That was an unbelievable relief.”

In statements released in March it was announced that “Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel will honor all employees’ base pay rates and their benefits”. It was also announced that tipped employees would receive additional compensation to account for the loss of tips during the closure as well as a 25 percent bonus for essential employees that were required to continue to come in to work during the closure to secure and maintain the casino facility.

In the months leading up to the shutdown, Whitebreast indicated that things were humming along pretty well for their business. Foot traffic was steady and the hotel was nearing the completion of a large renovation to their south tower. After the doors temporarily closed on March 17 the routine for the team members that remained changed dramatically. As one of the essential staff that continued to report to work each day during the shutdown, Ehrig remembers how strange it felt pulling into an empty parking lot each day and how challenging the whole experience was saying, “It was monotonous and you often wonder what’s going to happen down the road. There was a lot of worry, not only about our team members but also our guests.”

As the weeks drug on, the staff at MBCH spent time planning and preparing for their reopening. Things like acrylic glass barriers, personal protective equipment, and updated signage were all sourced and acquired. Whitebreast credits the Engineering team at the Casino for being able to provide much of the fabricating and installation labor they otherwise would have had to contract out to make their venues ready for the safe return of guests and staff.

A recent view inside Lucky's Bar & Grill, part of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel (Photo Provided)

The decision to reopen came after careful consideration and observation of how the pandemic was progressing and moving about the region.

“It’s the virus that dictates the timeline,” noted Whitebreast. “We were watching the numbers from the surrounding communities. We know where a lot of our gamers come from and have an eye on some of those locations. I think we’ve got a solid plan in place. We have a lot mitigation efforts and strategies in place.”

During their initial reopening phase, MBCH has brought back a majority of its staff while some are still on furlough. Amenities like the buffet, bingo hall, pool and fitness center, poker tables, and the events center remain temporarily closed in hopes of avoiding setbacks and progressing gradually toward a full return. The hotel, food and beverage areas, slots, and table games have opened at a reduced capacity, while other aspects of the MBCH business have permanently closed. Those include the Winding Stream Spa and the RV park.

A reopening guide published on the casino’s website illustrates a number of the efforts that are being taken to help prevent COVID-19 spread and exposure. All staff and guests are required to wear a mask in the building and must undergo a temperature scan before entering. Only those aged 21 and over are allowed to enter the building and all facilities have reopened smoke-free. Hours of operation have also changed temporarily during this first phase of reopening to allow for deep cleaning and sanitizing to occur.

Whitebreast says the process of reassessment that would inform the decision to either dial up or dial down their mitigation efforts is a daily process. Beyond the awareness of how the coronavirus is spreading, economic factors like unemployment are also monitored to help gauge wether or not people will have the resources and expendable income to spend at a gaming venue like MBCH.

Dirk Whitebreast, MBCH General Manager (Photo Provided)

Since returning on July 1st, Ehrig has been encouraged by the enthusiasm he’s seen from his fellow team members and guests as well the willingness of people to participate in precautionary measures so that business can move forward safely at MBCH.

“When we got to July 1st the feeling was ‘Yay! It’s finally here.’ ,” says Ehrig. “A lot of folks felt like it was time to get back to some type of normalcy. There will be new things that we’ll learn along the way but I feel like we’ve taken every action necessary to keep our guests and team members safe.

Whitebreast echoed the sentiment stating, “If I had to grade our opening I would give us an eight or nine out of 10. Our guests were really excited to be here. You could see it in their eyes that they were happy to be back. People recognize this place as their casino. I believe the way we bring people back through our doors is to hold up these mitigation efforts so people feel safe visiting us. “

Though the work to recover from and navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic is still very much in progress, Whitebreast expressed pride and gratitude towards the ways in which the Meskwaki Tribal Council and the MBCH Executive Management leadership groups stepped up during the recent crisis.

“We understand the hardship that comes with this. I remember what it was like to be a front-liner, I remember what it was like to live check to check. This is an incredible time of uncertainty. We care about those people and we care about those people’s families. We do our best to treat them as our own. The best thing that we could do for our people was to take some of that burden. I think it’s another example of how we recognize that we’re a part of the community. It may look like we’re on an island sometimes. But we care what happens to people.”

A recent view inside Lucky's Bar & Grill, part of the Meskwaki Bingo Casino & Hotel (Photo Provided)