Mohegan Sun casino officials haven't said whether they will restrict access due to the coronavirus crisis.
Foxwoods Resort Casino Elfenbeinturm via Creative Commons

Updated 6:50 p.m. on Monday.

The Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribal nations agreed Monday night to close Foxwoods Resort and Mohegan casinos for the first time since they opened in the 1990s, acceding to Gov. Ned Lamont’s call to temporarily suspend operations during the coronavirus pandemic. The casinos will close Tuesday at 8 p.m. for two weeks.

“This is an important cooperative agreement between sovereign nations and the State of Connecticut,” Lamont said in an emailed statement after a day of uncertainty. “We all share the same goal toward ensuring our residents are safe and keeping public health at the top of our minds during this public health emergency. I applaud the tribes for their collaboration and partnership.”

Lamont and Govs. Andrew Cuomo of New York and Phil Murphy of New Jersey agreed on executive orders closing restaurants, bars, theaters, gyms and any other venue that attracts crowds of more than 50, but the tribal casinos hedged over whether they would comply in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis.

The Connecticut executive order exempted the tribal casinos. But the text of the order noted that the governor was pressing for an agreement with the tribes and “reserves the right to address on-premises consumption of alcoholic beverages on tribal lands in a future Executive Order,” a hint the state might move to curtail liquor sales.

Earlier, the Mohegan Sun posted a statement on its web site saying, “The Connecticut Governor’s office and The Mohegan Tribal Council are in discussions on the closure of Mohegan Sun to the public.” It described a partial closure while talks continued with the Lamont administration.

“In the Sky section, where gaming and other amenities will continue until the temporary public closure, every other slot machine will be temporarily deactivated as an additional social distancing measure,” the tribe said.

The Pequots did not indicate during the day that they were considering a full closure, but reiterated steps already taken.

“We have already closed down various facilities, suspended bus transportation, instituted aggressive and thorough sanitation and cleaning processes, and initiated social distancing,” the Pequots tribal council said in a statement issued Monday afternoon.

As for further steps, the council said,  “As we continue to work with the Governor’s office we anticipate communicating more details by the end of the day.”

By Monday night, both tribes were on board, consenting in statements distributed by the governor’s office.

“This is a humbling reflection on the ongoing public health crisis and it is the right decision,” said Rodney Butler, the Pequots chairman.  “Our concern is for health and safety of the community and of the public. The coronavirus is a threat to each and every one of us, and we believe shutting our doors will keep our visitors, employees and the public more safe.”

“Connecticut and our respective tribes have worked collaboratively for decades and this moment in our history is no different,” said James Gessner, the Mohegan chairman. “This is a decision that was made to ensure all of our guests, team members, and our partners across Connecticut, especially in our local communities, remain safe. We are successful if the state is successful, and that’s true in all facets, like public health.”

“This is a do-the-right-thing situation.”

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo

With the closure of commercial casinos in Massachusetts, Rhode Island New York and New Jersey, the two giant tribal casinos in eastern Connecticut briefly regained a regional monopoly. As tribal sovereigns, they consider themselves outside the jurisdiction of the state.

Lamont said during a conference call with Cuomo and Murphy that Connecticut was urging the casinos to voluntarily  join other businesses in closing. Paul Mounds, the governor’s chief of staff, said the administration informed the tribal governments of the governor’s intention to call for a voluntary closure.

“We are urging the tribes in the strongest possible way they ought to be closing down those casinos,” Lamont said during a morning conference call with Cuomo and Murphy. “They’ve been good legal partners for us for quite some time, but there are legal and jurisdictional issues there.”

“This is a do-the-right-thing situation,” Cuomo said.

Tribal casinos in New York are complying.

Municipal officials in eastern Connecticut urged the closure, even though the casinos are major engines of economic activity in the region. 

Foxwoods and the other Mashantucket Pequot enterprises employ more than 6,700 people, according to an economic impact study the tribe released last August. According to the Mohegan Sun website, nearly 8,000 people are employed at that complex.

Montville Mayor Ronald K. McDaniel, whose community surrounds the Mohegan Sun, said public-health concerns should prompt the closure.

“We can’t have people congregating in one place when we don’t have them congregating in another,” he said, noting that most of Montville’s restaurants and stores already have closed voluntarily. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo said the economic disruption of closing two major regional employers, even temporarily, would be huge. 

“But this is bigger than any one thing,” he added. “To me we’re at a crucial point right now. We don’t want to be burying people because we didn’t take action.”

“To me we’re at a crucial point right now. We don’t want to be burying people because we didn’t take action.”

North Stonington First Selectman Michael Urgo

Urgo is aware that the casinos never close, but COVD-19 has affected other commercial operations, like Broadway, that have a track record of never shutting down.

“Walt Disney doesn’t close — and they’re closed,” he said.

Lamont’s latest order closing bars and restaurants to dine-in service — while a good thing — could potentially drive even more patrons to the casinos if they don’t cooperate and close, said Ledyard Mayor Fred Allyn III.

“With both casino operations drawing the tens of thousands of people that they do, this has the potential to really be an epicenter in our backyard,” he said.

All three municipal leaders said it’s also vital that the Lamont administration move quickly to mitigate the economic disruption casino closures would have.

There also are direct financial implications for the state.

Under an exclusivity deal, the tribes send 25% of gross gaming revenue from slot machines to Connecticut. That produced $255 million for the state last year and was projected to be worth $235 million this fiscal year. The payments are due in monthly installments, and each tribe made a payment Monday.

But their annual impact on the Connecticut economy is much greater given the casinos’ gross revenues are well in excess of $1 billion annually.

Thomas Sheridan, president of the Eastern Connecticut Chamber of Commerce, didn’t weigh in on the prospect of closing the casino, but expressed optimism Lamont and the tribes would address both public health and economic concerns.

“Both tribes have always been responsible,” Sheridan said. “They’ve always been good neighbors and there’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be otherwise with this situation.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

Keith has spent most of his 31 years as a reporter specializing in state government finances, analyzing such topics as income tax equity, waste in government and the complex funding systems behind Connecticut’s transportation and social services networks. He has been the state finances reporter at CT Mirror since it launched in 2010. Prior to joining CT Mirror Keith was State Capitol bureau chief for The Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a reporter for the Day of New London, and a former contributing writer to The New York Times. Keith is a graduate of and a former journalism instructor at the University of Connecticut.

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