Tribal Government & News

Recapping a year of COVID: From casino closure to mass vaccination clinics, Tribe persevered

03.12.2021 Dean Rhodes History
Spirit Mountain Casino closed in March 2020 for 74 days. When it re-opened on June 1, many Oregonians were thankful for a place to go for entertainment. (Photo by Timothy J. Gonzalez/Smoke Signals)


By Dean Rhodes

Smoke Signals editor

On Feb. 28, 2020, the Oregon Health Authority reported the first case of COVID-19 in Oregon.

Three days later, Tribal General Manager David Fullerton took the Tribe’s first official act in response to the looming pandemic, suspending air travel for all employees through the end of March.

By March 8, the number of cases in Oregon had increased to 21 and Gov. Kate Brown declared a State of Emergency to combat the virus’ spread.

Meanwhile, what would eventually become the last in-person Tribal gatherings occurred – the March 1 General Council meeting held in the Tribal Community Center, a Student Success Night held on March 5 in the Tribal gym and the March 11 Spirit Mountain Community Fund check distribution held in the Governance Center Atrium.

On March 11, the Grand Ronde Tribe announced the postponement of the April 3-4 Agency Creek Round Dance and the upcoming Native Wellness Day.

Eight days later, on Thursday, March 19, the unthinkable occurred – Spirit Mountain Casino closed for what originally was thought would be three weeks, but eventually lasted 74 days until June 1. In addition, only “essential” governmental employees were allowed to work in the Governance Center.

The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde entered its first ever State of Emergency with the unprecedented closure of its primary economic engine and its governmental campus, moves that in hindsight probably kept the pandemic at bay for as long as it was in the community.

The next 12 months challenged the Tribe and its leadership to combat the financial ramifications of a shuttered casino, the public health threats of a rampaging pandemic and the cultural fallout of canceling numerous events, including the August Contest Powwow.


Jumping into action

Tribal Council immediately addressed the possible financial fallout of closing Spirit Mountain Casino on March 18 by suspending all loan payments from Spirit Mountain Gaming Inc. to the Tribe because of possible negative effects to the casino’s cash flow. It also approved using up to $20 million from the Tribe’s line of credit to maintain account liquidity, which allowed the Tribe to extend additional PTO hours to both casino and governmental employees so that they would continue receiving a paycheck. The Tribe eventually granted eight weeks’ worth of paid time off to help employees through the casino and governmental closures.

The March 18 meeting also declared the first-ever State of Emergency for the Tribe since 1983’s Restoration and was the first where Tribal Council members sat six feet apart to help stem the spread of the virus and act as role models for the community.

On March 23, the Tribal Health & Wellness Center Pharmacy adopted a mostly mail-order delivery model to protect the health and safety of patients and staff, and to ensure the Tribal drug supply remained secure.

On March 27, President Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act into law. The $2 trillion relief bill provided $8 billion in “stabilization funds” to support Tribal governments dealing with the pandemic. The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde eventually received $45 million in CARES Act funding that supplemented many of its efforts to assist Tribal members.

Tribal events started to be canceled left and right as the number of cases burgeoned in Oregon. The April 5 General Council meeting in Eugene was scrapped as Lane Community College closed, the Summer Youth Employment Program was postponed and the annual internship to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and concurrent visit to Tomanowos did not occur because, at the time, New York City was ground zero for the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States.

The first Facebook Live event, featuring Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy, Fullerton and Health Services Executive Director Kelly Rowe, aired on March 25 and registered a viewership of more than 240 people – many more Tribal members than usually attend either General Council or Tribal Council meetings.

General Council returned in May, but virtually with Fullerton briefing the membership on emergency efforts related to the pandemic. But May also saw the cancellation of the Tribe’s fishing season at the Willamette Falls platform, the fish ceremony held in West Linn and the Memorial Day event held at the West Valley Veterans Memorial on the Tribal campus.

As the economic fallout of the pandemic cascaded throughout the nation, affecting a dispersed Tribal membership that lives in more than 40 states, Tribal Council approved a COVID-19 Relief Payment Program on April 1 that would send general welfare payments to every adult Tribal member. Eventually, the program would disperse eight consecutive monthly payments worth a total of $4,400 to adult members in 2020 and help make up for suspended per capita payments that did not occur in June and September.

“Tribal Council must act to protect the social and economic well-being of Tribal members,” Vice Chair Chris Mercier said.


A better summer

As the weather improved in western Oregon, pandemic circumstances improved for the Tribe. Governmental employees returned to work on May 18, but they were required to wear masks in public and be tested for fever before entering the facility. In addition, walk-in visitors were prohibited.

Even better news occurred when Spirit Mountain Casino re-opened on Monday, June 1, with health protocols in place and abbreviated hours to allow for deep cleaning of the facility.

“I’m so glad to finally be able to go somewhere,” a woman exclaimed as she entered the casino on that first day. Many other Oregonians agreed.

In July, the casino instituted a requirement that all guests wear masks inside as the number of diagnosed COVID-19 cases continued to increase in Oregon.

Despite the warming weather, Tribal events continued to go by the wayside. The annual Veterans Powwow and Contest Powwow were officially canceled, as was Elder Honor Day held at Spirit Mountain Casino. Large gatherings – “super spreader events” as they would be nicknamed – that would bring in large numbers of people from outside the community were strongly discouraged by public health officials.

One event that did go on as scheduled was the June 28 Tribal Council nominations held in the Governance Center Atrium. Only Tribal staff, nominators and nominees were allowed inside and everyone had to wear a mask. Only five people decided to run for office during the pandemic and incumbents Lisa Leno, Michael Langley and Chris Mercier were re-elected with record-setting vote totals.

Surprisingly, four months into the pandemic and the Grand Ronde community still had not registered a local positive COVID-19 case. On July 8, voluntary employee testing started and all 32 tests were negative. But that changed in early August when the first positive COVID-19 test was reported by the Health & Wellness Center.

The positive test would mark the end of the pandemic bubble around the Grand Ronde community as more cases would be detected and the Tribal convenience store adjacent to Spirit Mountain Casino closed in late August because contact tracing uncovered positive COVID-19 connections to the facility.

As summer came to a close and smoke from western Oregon wildfires inundated the Grand Ronde valley and turned the day sky orange, one couldn’t help but wonder if it was a harbinger of an ominous fall as the weather grew colder and rainier, and people were forced back inside.


Cases increase in the fall

The Tribal Health & Wellness Center detected positive cases with ties to the Grand Ronde community in late August and positives continued into September.

Tribal students, hankering to return to school, couldn’t because of the virus and were forced to distance learning on computers. The Tribe offered Tribal members a technology grant to purchase computers on which they could attend school or connect with the Tribal government, which was 100 percent virtual at this point.

Four behind-the-scenes casino employees tested positive for the coronavirus in October and the Tribe self-reported to the Oregon Health Authority.

“As unfortunate as these recent cases are, it is also a reminder of the seriousness of this situation,” Kennedy said, as she continued to encourage hand washing, mask wearing and social distancing.

In another unprecedented move, the annual Restoration Celebration moved to an online format. Large crowds in an indoor setting was still highly discouraged as the Tribe remained in the State of Emergency announced earlier in the year.

In early November, two positive tests of Tribal governmental employees prompted Fullerton to limit access to the Governance Center for three days to only essential employees. Other staff members worked from home or were granted administrative leave.

As numbers skyrocketed to more than a 1,000 cases daily across Oregon, Brown announced a “freeze” to combat the spread of COVID-19. However, the Tribe maintained its current scaled-back Tribal governmental operations and Spirit Mountain Casino remained open during the surge in numbers.

Tribal members and employees were encouraged to follow guidelines for limited Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations as the annual Tribal Council Christmas Party was canceled.

During a Dec. 9 Facebook Live event, Rowe reported there were 17 active cases in Grand Ronde.

“We know that this is happening in our community,” she said. “It’s getting closer. It’s more prevalent. So please, please adhere to the public health recommendations.”


Getting better?

2020 ended and the new year started with the first signs of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

Rowe became one of the first Tribal employees to receive a first dose of the two-dose Moderna COVID-19 vaccine on Dec. 22. By the next day, 20 essential health care workers had received their first shot. Tribal Council Chairwoman Cheryle A. Kennedy received her first dose in early January.

Tribal Council approved the 2021 spending plan that reflected a less than 1 percent decrease in spending from the previous year. Miraculously, Spirit Mountain Casino had reached its projected revenue for 2020 despite the 74-day closure and the infusion of federal aid, matched by reduced spending by Tribal programs, helped the Tribe enter the new year on solid financial footing.

As 2021 really got started, the Health & Wellness Center doubled its COVID-19 testing capacity and increased supplies of vaccine saw the Tribe host several vaccination clinics. To date, the Tribe has vaccinated approximately 5,800 people with more than 3,200 of the vaccinations being given to Elders 55 and older.

Local school districts started announcing plans to or are re-opening as their teachers receive vaccinations. Statewide virus cases have plummeted from more than a 1,000 daily in the winter to more manageable levels of several hundred per day.

Using CARES Act funding, Tribal Council upgraded the technology in its chambers to allow for better remote participation by Tribal Council members and the membership. The federal government also extended the deadline to spend any remaining CARES Act funds until the end of 2021.

After a Valentine’s Day ice and snow storm caused power outages and downed trees in the Grand Ronde area, the weather turned decidedly warmer and daylight hours lengthened noticeably. On Sunday, March 14, Daylight Saving Time began and extended daylight until after 7 p.m.

The Grand Ronde Tribe and people of Oregon can’t help but feel hope and anticipation as warmer spring and summer temperatures arrive. The annual Memorial Day event at the West Valley Veterans Memorial will be held outside this year with appropriate social distancing, Tribal Council member Steve Bobb Sr. said.

Congress approved President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 economic stimulus package that will once again dedicate funding to help Tribal governments.

Oregon was one of the first states to report a case of COVID-19, but a year after it has the fourth lowest coronavirus case rate in the country, the fourth lowest death rate and the fourth lowest death rate among seniors.

If Oregon’s death rate matched the nation, three times as many Oregonians would have lost their lives, Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.

As Oregon moves into spring and summer, the Oregon Health Authority encourages people to keep wearing masks, limit social gatherings and maintain physical distance. And choose to get vaccinated when eligible and as soon as a person can get an appointment.

For the Tribe, it survived and came out the other end financially secure. It has taken care of its members and employees, and is now caring for its community by hosting open vaccination clinics.

The Tribe has bolstered its technology and that of its membership, and has cared for its most vulnerable population – the Elders. Through the hard and unrelenting work of its elected officials, staff, administration and membership, it has once again proven to be resilient in the face of adversity.

“Things are going really well out here in the Tribe,” Mercier said during a March 3 Facebook Live event. “I think we have not been hit as hard as other parts of the country and I think a lot of that is due to the incredible job that many of our support staff are doing. Obviously, a lot of people are turning to this community when it comes to the vaccines. … We’ve become kind of a place people turn to to handle this. I’m pretty proud of the job we’ve done and will continue to do until whenever this ends.”

Tribal Council thoughts on

living a year with COVID

 “I am very proud of how our Tribe has responded to COVID-19. I think we have worked hard to prioritize taking care of our people. … I think we have been reminded that big sickness can come to our Tribe today just as it did so often for our ancestors.”

Kathleen George

 “Our staff really did a good job of handling all the different things that they had to handle, especially with keeping essential services still in place. … It has made everyone aware of how well we work together.”

Steve Bobb Sr.

 “I think we handled it as well as we could, but the proof will be in how we are prepared for the future and how we handle the next pandemic. … We really just let our Tribal values guide us and I think that’s really pulled people together.”

Michael Langley 

 “I feel like we recognized the severity of what this issue could become from the get-go and we took it very seriously. … The Grand Ronde community took it very seriously and we recognize that now, more than any, is a time for unity.”

Chris Mercier