TOWER — The Fortune Bay Resort Casino on Tuesday announced official plans to reopen its doors on June 1, a move that resurrects the largest financial generator for the Bois Forte Band of Chippewa in northeastern Minnesota.
“We thought long and hard about this, but felt we are 100 percent ready to safely reopen our doors,” Fortune Bay’s general manager Jenna Lehti said in a news release.
Business leaders say they are preparing for a “soft opening.” That means the casino, which typically ran around the clock, will now operate from 9 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days per week. The Gold Mine Grill will run from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 9 a.m. until midnight Friday and Saturday. The North Star Bar will be 10 a.m. until midnight seven days a week.
The Sunset Steakhouse and Tamarack Buffet, however, will remain closed for the foreseeable future and the gift shop will have reduced hours, as well as the pool area, which includes a hot tub, sauna, and small workout center. Due to social distancing, all weddings and conferences have been postponed.
The news comes more than two months after the Bois Forte Band closed Fortune Back on March 18, “in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Sidra Starkovich, the band’s director of planning and community development, said at the time.
The shutdown aligned with Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announcing that the state would temporarily close dine-in services at bars, restaurants and breweries in addition to gyms and coffee shops.
There are 11 tribal nations in Minnesota. The governor’s directions don’t apply to the Bois Forte and other bands, which are federally-recognized sovereign nations. Still, the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the Fond du Lac Band of Superior Chippewa, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Prairie Island Indian Community and other bands all moved to close their own casinos as well.
Several days after the state reopened golf courses, Chavers announced on April 22 the Bois Forte Band would reopen The Wilderness golf course at Fortune Bay on May 8. The band has since welcomed golfers from cities across the Iron Range and elsewhere in the state.
More recently, Walz announced on May 14 that he would let his stay-at-home order expire last Sunday and sign a separate executive order to allow stores to reopen at reduced capacities while keeping in place restrictions on bars, restaurants, hair salons and other establishments. He noted that businesses could open on June 1 if they meet safe opening plans in accordance with state guidelines.
That same day, the Bois Forte Band made references to reopening Fortune Bay during press conferences that appeared to align with the governor’s suggestion of waiting to open up on June 1.
Business owners across the state have since been in a sort of limbo and waiting on the Walz administration’s new guidelines in order to establish their own rules for customers eager to once again experience dine-in services. Meanwhile, tribal nations have announced reopenings under their own guidelines.
The Upper Sioux Community reopened Prairie's Edge Casino Resort in southwest Minnesota this past Monday, becoming the first tribal casinos to reopen since the outbreak of the coronavirus. The community limited the number of customers to 780 people and eliminated half of the slot machines to better practice social distancing, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. Staff and customers have been wearing masks and having their temperatures checked before entering the casino.
The Minnesota Attorney General’s office reportedly called the Upper Sioux Chairman Kevin Jensvold, asking whether the tribal leader was aware of the governor’s executive order to close bars and restaurants.
“I take that as a direct affront and offense on behalf of my people,” Jensvold told the St. Paul Pioneer Press, reiterating that the community has been in communication with the governor but ultimately remains a sovereign nation that makes its own decisions apart from the state directives.
The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community on Monday said it would reopen its Mystic Lake and Little Six casinos on May 26 in the Twin Cities.
That same day, Mille Lacs Band said it too would reopen its casinos in the southeast part of the state at an undetermined date. Later that evening, the band confirmed its first coronavirus case.
The confirmed case of Covid-19 follows several other publicly acknowledged cases on the Leech Lake Reservation in the north-central part of the state. Data from the Indian Health Service shows that at least 100 positive cases have been reported as of Sunday from the federal agency, tribal and urban Indian organization facilities in the state.
As of Tuesday, the Minnesota Department of Health reported a total of 17,029 cases of Covid-19, with 748 deaths.
While most of the cases are centralized in metro areas, the virus has reached more isolated counties in the northeast part of the state. St. Louis County had 107 cases and 13 deaths, according to state data. Itasca County had 49 cases and six deaths and Koochiching County had five cases.
The Bois Forte Band officials have been keeping tabs on the growing number of coronavirus cases neighboring the reservation. “The number of positive coronavirus cases in the area are increasing and are closing in on Bois Forte,” said Louise Isham, the tribal executive coordinator in a recording briefing last Thursday.
The Bois Forte Band has not confirmed any known cases.
In attempts to reopen Fortune Bay, the band has fine-tuned its own safety guidelines in an effort to maintain a safe atmosphere as the coronavirus continues to spread into the northeast part of the state.
Tribal business leaders on Tuesday did not describe a reduction in capacity but noted that customers will have their temperature taken at an outdoor station on the service road leading onto the property.
“If a guest or employee has a temperature of 100, they will not be allowed on the property,” according to the news release emailed by Brian K. Anderson, the public relations manager at Fortune Bay. “This same policy applies to guests who arrive by boat and plan to spend time on the property.”
The Bois Forte Band is requiring that all staff wear face masks, a requirement of tribal government workers since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak that differed in the state’s mere encouraging residents to do so. Business leaders plan to only ask that customers wear masks themselves. Though only a suggestion, they hope that people wear masks or busy them for $1 at the casino and resort and have placed signs throughout the business to remind guests to practice social distancing and use sanitizer stations.
The band has also banned smoking inside the business, keeping in mind that most people infected with COVID-19 will experience respiratory illness when severe could manifest in trouble breathing and persistent pain in the chest.
“We will be entirely smoke-free throughout our property as directed by our tribal council,” said Lehti, the general manager who added there will be designated smoking areas outside. “This is one measure we all firmly believed in to do our part to keep our guests safe.”
Meanwhile, the janitorial and housekeeping teams at the resort and casino have continued to clean the public space areas and resort rooms.
“Ever since we first closed our doors in March, our team has worked extremely hard to deep clean our entire facility and we’ll continue to do that once we re-open,” Lehti said. “We will be diligent in making regular rounds to wipe down all surfaces and have hand sanitizers and wipes readily available for our guests and employees to use.
“We miss our guests and longtime customers who we’ve come to know by first name,” said Lehti, who took over in February as general manager of Fortune Bay, which opened in 1986. “We have talked to a lot of them and they feel confident that we’ve taken the right steps to ensure they’ll be safe once we reopen.”
Chavers praised the staff at Fortune Bay for their efforts.
“It is reassuring to know how much time Jenna and her management team put in to come up with a safe and viable plan to reopen our doors,” Chaver said. “They all care deeply about our guests and employees and I think you’ll see that kind heartedness on display June 1.”