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Native American Casinos In Iowa Temporarily Non-Smoking

Iowa Public Radio News | By Katie Peikes
Published July 22, 2020 at 2:23 PM CDT

The four Native American-owned casinos in Iowa are temporarily smoke-free after reopening with precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and one organization is asking them to make this change permanent.

Blackbird Bend CasinoPrairie Flower CasinoWinnaVegas Casino Resort and Meskwaki Bingo Casino reopened in June and July with a number of safeguards in place to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including no smoking indoors. Larry Wright Jr., the chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, which owns Prairie Flower Casino in Carter Lake, said they wanted to ensure peoples’ health and safety, plus they wanted all visitors and staff to wear masks.

“As we looked at it, it would be very difficult to enforce a 100 percent mask requirement when you have people in the casino smoking,” Wright said. “They would obviously need to remove their masks for that.”

Prairie Flower Casino reopened June 1 and has had a “temporary 100 percent smoke-free environment with no smoking or vaping allowed inside the casino” according to a May news release. Wright said there have been some visitors that didn’t agree with the policy, but by and large, people have understood and accepted it. The casino has a spot about 50 feet from the entrance where people can go smoke outside.

“And it’s been used,” Wright said. “I haven’t heard any complaints about that yet.”

Wright said the non-smoking policy will be in place for the foreseeable future. That’s the same thing with WinnaVegas Casino Resort in Sloan owned by the Winnebago Tribe of Nebraska, which has had a smoke-free policy in place since reopening June 12. The casino also requires people to wear masks. Michael Michaud is the casino’s marketing director.

“We don’t have a crystal ball and we can’t tell you what the future holds,” Michaud said. “What we do see is the increase in the amount of testing and the positive cases around the country and we want to make sure that we’re taking care of our community members and our guests and our team members as much as we can.”

Like Prairie Flower Casino, Michaud said staff at WinnaVegas Casino Resort felt it would be “insufficient” if they provided masks, had a mandate to wear them and allowed people to smoke indoors. People can smoke outside, about 20 feet away from the entrances. Michaud said the casino has received a lot of positive feedback since going smoke-free, but surveys sent out to guests before the casino reopened revealed that 17 percent of the respondents said they wouldn’t come back because of the smoke-free policy.

“So we know that that segment of our guests still want to come back, they want to gamble and they want to smoke and they’re not going to come back until we have smoking available inside of the property,” Michaud said.

According to the American Lung Association’s list of businesses that allow indoor smoking but have been smoke-free since reopening, the four Native American casinos in Iowa are the only casinos in the state to do so.

Casinos are exempt from Iowa’s Smokefree Air Act, which prohibits smoking in “almost all public places and enclosed areas within places of employment,“ like restaurants, bars, theaters and offices. In a statement Tuesday, Kristina Hamilton, the advocacy director for the American Lung Association, applauded the four casinos for going smoke-free.

“This policy will protect the health of workers and customers from dangerous secondhand smoke and e-cigarette emissions, and we call for the permanent adoption of this policy,” Hamilton said in a statement.

Hamilton continued, “The American Lung Association will continue to advocate for strong smokefree laws and policies. We strongly urge other casinos to adopt a similar smokefree policy and follow the lead of Blackbird Bend, WinnaVegas, Meskwaki Bingo and Prairie Flower Casinos.”

Asked if a permanent ban is something they’d consider, Michaud and Wright both said that decision would be up to the tribes that own the casinos. Wright said Prairie Flower Casino and the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska are focused on what they’re dealing with in the present.

“For right now, this is temporary,” Wright said. “As far as doing it permanent, regardless, we want to make sure the environment that we have is conducive to everyone and we’ll take all the measures that we can to continue to do so.”

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