The Island Resort and Casino in Michigan's Upper Peninsula remains closed after the tribe received a letter from the state's Attorney General's office. (Courtesy photo.)

HARRIS, Mich. — Late last week, the Island Resort and Casino, owned and operated by the Hannahville Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, announced plans to reopen on May 6.

Today, two days after it was to re-open, Island Resort and Casino remains closed. The change of plans came after Hannahville Indian Community Tribal Chairperson Kenneth Meshigaud received correspondence from state of Michigan officials that made him rethink the reopening of the facility.

The resort and casino have been closed since March 21, when it voluntarily shuttered its doors due to concerns for the health and safety of its team members and customers related to COVID-19. 

The Hannahville Indian Community is a federally recognized Potawatomi tribe. Federally recognized tribes have sovereignty status that exempts them from state laws. It also allows the tribal governments to interact with states in a government-to-government relationship.

Michigan, a state with the fourth-most COVID-19 related deaths in the country, has been under a stay-at-home order issued by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer since March 23. The order was extended Thursday afternoon until at least May 28.

Last week, the tribe reached out to the governor’s office to coordinate a reopen date for Island Resort and Casino. Citing its sovereign status, the tribe decided to reopen the casino, saying it would institute more safety precautions, including increased sanitation measures and checking temperature of all customers before allowing them access into the casino. Anyone with a temperature above 100-degrees F would be denied access.

The tribe heard back from the Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office and the Menominee County Prosecutor’s Office in a letter dated May 5.  The message:  the Tribe has the legal right to re-open, but some employees and customers could be subjected to penalties of up to $1,000 per violation or per day under the executive order.  

“We got a letter by email on May 5 that told us about the measures the governor had taken to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in Michigan, such as declaring the state of emergency, stay-at-home orders and explanation of the governor’s authority,” Meshigaud said in a telephone interview with Native News Online. “The letter told us we should limit our operations, otherwise our enrolled members living off reservation and customers could be cited and subject to civil and criminal penalties.”

After receiving the letter, Meshigaud said he made the decision to keep the casino closed.

“I did not want to put our tribal members or non-tribal members in jeopardy of being cited and wanted to consult with our tribal council,” Meshigaud said.

Native News Online reached out to the offices of Gov. Whitmer and Attorney General Nessel for comment on Thursday. 

Attorney General Dana Nessel’s press secretary Ryan Jarvi shared a copy of the letter and released the following statement to Native News Online on Thursday:

“Representatives from State offices have been in ongoing discussions with tribal leaders, and a conference call between those leaders and Gov. Whitmer, MDHHS Chief Medical Executive Khaldun and other representatives from State offices is scheduled for early next week to continue that conversation. The Attorney General’s office will also participate in the call. We respect the tribes’ sovereignty and seek to continue to work with them as partners in a concerted effort to protect human life from the threat posed by COVID-19.”

As of today, the Island Resort and Casino’s website says the reopening will happen on May 16. Given the governor’s Thursday extension of the stay-at-home order, Meshigaud said the Hannahville Indian Community tribal council was meeting Friday morning to discuss next steps.

Meshigaud welcomes the conference call next week with other Michigan tribal leaders and the governor and other state officials.

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Levi Rickert
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Levi "Calm Before the Storm" Rickert (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation) is the founder, publisher and editor of Native News Online. Rickert was awarded Best Column 2021 Native Media Award for the print/online category by the Native American Journalists Association. He serves on the advisory board of the Multicultural Media Correspondents Association. He can be reached at [email protected].