The Bois Forte Band of Chippewa plans to keep the Fortune Bay Resort Casino bar in Tower open beyond the time designated in the governor’s newly-issued executive order meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus statewide.
Bois Forte Chair Cathy Chavers on Thursday said she discussed the order with the tribal community health nurse and other health officials, before band leaders “opted” to keep the bar open past the 10 p.m. statewide limit. “Right now, Fortune Bay does have the proper procedures in place to maintain a safe protocol at their bar,” she said in a recorded video update. “We are doing the temperature checks. We are doing the masks. They’re really stringent on their safety precautions when it comes to the bar.”
She added, “We will be reevaluating that periodically to make sure that it does maintain the same protocols that we had in place. If it does become an issue then we’ll address it at that time.”
Gov. Tim Walz on Tuesday announced that bars and restaurants statewide could no longer serve in-person customers after 10 p.m. beginning on Friday, Nov. 13. The establishments are still allowed to sell to-go orders.
The governor’s order comes as the state continues to report record-setting numbers of coronavirus cases and related deaths. His focus on bars and restaurants was made as an effort to slow the spread of the virus among people between the ages of 18 and 35.
The Bois Forte Band, one of the 11 federally-recognized sovereign nations in Minnesota, is not required to follow the governor’s order. Still, Chavers — who has been vigilant in safeguarding her community from the virus — has mostly followed the governor’s previous orders.
In effect, the band has kept the number of cases low compared to other areas in northeastern Minnesota. As of Thursday, the Bois Forte Band reported only five active cases, bringing the total to 30 active and recovered cases since the virus reached the reservation.
Despite not closing the bar after 10 p.m., Chavers noted that the band plans to adopt the governor’s call to limit the number of people eating and drinking at indoor and outdoor tables, and requested band members follow the statewide call to limit wedding receptions and other private gatherings from 50 people on Nov. 27 to 25 by Dec. 11.
The Fortune Bay bar closes at 2 a.m. and the casino at 3 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The casino closes at 12 a.m. Sunday through Thursday.
“We want to make sure that we are doing everything with regards to Executive Order 20.96 with the exception of keeping the bar open at Fortune Bay Resort Casino after 10,” Chavers said. “But other than that, the reservation will be complying with the rest of the safety protocols that the governor has announced and put into place.”
The moves beg the question of whether people from surrounding St. Louis, Itasca and Koochiching counties would frequent the bar since it would be open later than others. The three counties have been reporting a surge in coronavirus cases, largely attributed to community transmission.
As of Saturday morning, St. Louis County, where Fortune Bay sits, reported more than 5,357 cases and 83 deaths. “Numbers are increasing locally and statewide and nationally…,” Chavers said. “More than ever, we ask that people wear your mask and social distance.”
Statewide, the Minnesota Department of Health reported another new daily record of COVID-19 infections at 8,703 and 35 additional deaths. St. Louis County accounted for 184 of the new cases, with Itasca reporting 30 and Koochiching 13.
“We will continue to monitor the situation and will re-evaluate if we believe the situation is becoming problematic,” Fortune Bay General Manager Jenna Lehti wrote in an email Friday. “I’m proud of the health and sanitation plan our team put together prior to opening and the work they’ve put into executing it. Some of the measures we implemented back in June and continue to enforce include: Removing tables in the bar and seats at the counter, no gathering in the bar area, and your mask must be put back up between drinks.”
It was mid-March when Walz first announced the state would temporarily close dine-in venues at bars, restaurants and breweries in addition to gyms and coffee shops until March 27. 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 the Bois Forte Band, among other tribal nations, announced they would idle their casinos and resorts.
Closing Fortune Bay had been expected to affect the band’s finances, as its the largest revenue generator on the reservation, employing about 400-450 Native and non-Native workers (about 33 percent are band members), Brian K. Anderson, director of sales and public relations, told the Mesabi Tribune in an email on Friday. But they did so “in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus,” Sidra Starkovich, the Bois Forte Band director of planning and community development, said at the time.
Nearly two months later, Walz announced on May 14 that he would let his stay-at-home order expire and sign a separate executive order to allow stores to reopen at reduced capacity, while keeping in place restrictions on bars, restaurants, hair salons and other establishments. He noted that businesses could reopen on June 1, if they meet safe opening plans in accordance with state guidelines.
The band reopened Fortune Bay on June 1, with roughly half of the estimated 800 machines in play to allow for proper social distancing, Anderson wrote. The resort would eventually move into full capacity at 173 rooms during the summer months. The Tamarack Buffet did not reopen, in addition to the arcade, small business office and poker room.
The band required staff to wear masks, suggested visitors did, encouraged all use hand sanitizer, and banned smoking inside the businesses, keeping in mind people infected with COVID-19 will experience respiratory illness when severe could manifest in trouble breathing and persistent pain in the chest, Anderson confirmed. Meanwhile, the business delayed check-ins for two hours to allow janitorial and housekeeping teams at the resort and casino more time to clean the rooms.