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As Ho-Chunk casinos reopen, tribe copes with big losses during pandemic

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BARABOO (WKOW) -- One of the busiest Ho-Chunk casinos in Wisconsin is back open Monday, after it was closed for more than three months during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells reopened at 9 a.m. to a line of hundreds of people waiting to get in.

"We do really well here in the Dells and it was a great year until the virus hit," said executive manager John Phillipp.

It's a different gaming experience now, as the casino works to make sure COVID-19 doesn't spread in the facility.

Everyone has to wear masks at all times and get their temperature checked before walking into the building. Right now, only slots are available and staff members are continuously wiping down surfaces.

"All of our team members have been trained. They went through about a two-hour training before they came to work and they've learned about what we need to do to keep ourselves safe and our guests safe as well," Phillipp told 27 News.

But the staffing team is much smaller than before. Only about 350 - about 30 percent - are working at the Baraboo casino right now.

Last week, the Ho-Chunk Nation announced temporary layoffs after all casinos closed down in March would be permanent.

"We look at ourselves as somebody who's been able to provide very good jobs for those community members and for those tribal members," said Ryan Greendeer, public relations officer for Ho-Chunk. "But we know that even as the tribe has been impacted heavily, so are our families."

Tribal officials say gaming revenue at Ho-Chunk casinos across the state makes up 80 percent of the tribe's entire budget. Ho-Chunk uses that money to provide social services to the Native community.

"We're experiencing some tough times. There's no other way about it. But this isn't the first time that we've had to face adversity," Greendeer told 27 News.

Greendeer says tribal leaders are working to assess the budget moving forward, as the casinos start to reopen and bring in income again. So far, they've opted to eliminate some services also offered by county officials, like veterans assistance programs.

CARES Act funding has been critical to keep essential services like housing, food and healthcare running. Plus, the tribe has used that money to develop safety plans to get the casinos back open.

"We've used a lot of that funding to put in place those different measures that are going to be able to protect both our consumers, the people that are visiting, and then our employees and our families," Greendeer said. "Without having those things in place, our Department of Health never would have signed off on people coming in the doors."

Ho-Chunk Gaming Wisconsin Dells took time to clean air filters and has opted to ban smoking inside the casino for better air quality. They've also installed social distancing markers and sanitizing stations. The casino will not be open 24 hours, to allow for deep cleaning overnight.

Phillipp hopes as the Dells area casino slowly reopens services, like bar, dining and other gaming, he'll be able to hire back hundreds of workers who were laid off.

"If we do it safely, we could continue to grow this business and grow inside of our own business, which allows us to bring our team members back," Phillipp said.

Click here for more information on the reopening plans at Ho-Chunk casinos.

Jennifer Kliese

Weekend Anchor and Reporter, 27 News

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