It’s rare for the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee to close.
It did so after the coronavirus hit and became a global pandemic.
Not only did the usually bustling 24-7 operation shut its doors, but it has been shuttered for months, leaving a void in fun and entertainment and a hole in the local economy.
Before the casino and hotel closed March 20, Seminole Gaming reigned as the largest employer in the rural town of Immokalee — and among the largest in all of Collier County, accounting for up to 900 jobs in peak season.
On Monday, the complex will reopen at 11 a.m. to the delight of their loyal customers and employees, with new — and much more stringent — safety measures in place designed to protect everyone who enters from exposure to COVID-19.
For more than five months the hotel hasn’t had a single guest and the casino hasn’t had a single player.
There have been no dealers taking bets, no playing cards shuffled, no wheels spinning, no bells ringing, and no cash — or tickets — flowing. The excitement vanished overnight, with no shrieks from jackpot winners on the slots or shrills from high-rollers with big payouts at the table.
“It’s normally a very active and exciting place. It’s part of the entertainment,” said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Hundreds of employees have been on standby, eagerly waiting for their jobs to return.
Local businesses have suffered without the casino‘s big draw of visitors to Immokalee — about 40 miles east of Naples. That includes everything from gas stations to restaurants.
“They do a lot for the community and it is a blessing they are going to be reopening. I’m a big supporter,” said Danny Gonzalez, president of the Immokalee Chamber of Commerce.
Gonzalez is an owner of Lozano’s Mexican Restaurant, a longtime family business in the mostly agricultural town of Immokalee, where more than 40% of residents lived in poverty before the pandemic hit. The eatery, known for its home-style, made-from-scratch meals, usually sees a steady flow of business from casino visitors who like to venture out beyond the slot machines and card tables to get a flavor of the local community.
“It has been a struggle in Immokalee this summer. We managed to make it. Thank God,” Gonzalez said.
The mom-and-pop vendors operating at Immokalee’s farmers’ market, a popular spot for casino guests to buy fresh local produce at bargain prices, have suffered greatly too, along with many other small enterprises that have come to rely on their business, he said.
A destination with regional reach
The casino‘s regular visitors come from as far as 90 miles away.
Without a loan Lozano’s received through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Gonzalez said survival after March would have been much more difficult. With the loan, he said, he kept the doors open and all of his employees working through most of the summer, although he still had to cut their hours so he didn’t have to let anyone go.
The restaurant closed for a month for maintenance and a little sprucing up.
Gonzalez estimates that at least 80% of the workforce for the casino and hotel lives in Immokalee. Some, he said, turned to picking saw palmetto berries this summer to support themselves, as they waited for their much more comfortable and steady jobs to come back.
Since the closure, Seminole Gaming has continued to support its employees in many ways, including regularly providing them with $100 gift cards to help them buy groceries and other essentials in hard times.
Employees received paychecks for two weeks after the closure. They’ve been allowed to use their available — and tap their future — paid-time-off to extend their pay, and they’ve continued to get their health care benefits, Bitner said.
While the Seminole hotel will reopen at full capacity, the casino won’t.
Capacity at the casino will be limited to 50%, with many of its gaming machines still off-limits to ensure social distancing.
At first, only one of the three restaurants at the casino complex will reopen — and live entertainment and events won’t be offered for safety reasons.
Starting Monday, the EE-TO-LEET-KE Grill will open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. for dine-in and to-go orders, with its Cappucino’s Coffee & Pastry Bar starting to operate around the clock again.
No eating or drinking will be allowed on the casino floor and menus are disposable now.
With more limited operations, a little over 500 employees will be brought back to work for the hotel and casino initially, with roughly 75 of them filling new jobs generated by the tribe’s new “Safe + Sound” protocols and guidelines that are the brainchild of Jim Allen, the CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International.
The Seminole Tribe owns six casinos in Florida, including two in Hollywood and Tampa that are attached to Hard Rock hotels and branded that way.
The Immokalee casino and hotel will be the last location to reopen, with updated safety protocols based on lessons learned at the other properties — and all of the bugs and kinks experienced early on in the program worked out, Bitner said.
“This is an industry-leading effort,” he said. “There is no question that what the Seminoles are doing is leading the industry. In fact, frankly, leading multiple industries because it sets up such a comprehensive program to help keep people healthy and safe.”
A few days ahead of its reopening, a rainbow of lights glowed from slot machines and game tables inside the Immokalee casino, but there was little action, other than from a few employees on the Clean Team wiping everything down to the nth degree and a training session for returning employees who are moving into new positions needed to carry out and enforce the tribe’s new safety rules.
The only real noise came from the sound system, blaring a steady stream of upbeat, familiar-sounding tunes.
Over the loud music, general manager Tony Alvez said he’s missed the usual high-energy scene at the casino, where he’s continued to spend much of his time despite the closure, with the goal of ensuring the grounds are in tip-top shape as if they were opening for the first time again.
“It’s very different. It feels like a sci-fi movie,” he said, standing in the middle of the casino with an eye on all the empty chairs and an ear on the empty sounds during a tour Thursday.
Alvez and Bitner eagerly showed off the many changes Seminole Gaming has made to protect the health of their employees and guests, starting with funneling everyone through a single entrance where their temperatures can be quickly checked by automated thermal imaging scanners.
Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher will be steered to a partitioned air-conditioned waiting area just past the front doors, where they’ll be offered a seat and a cold bottle of water if wanted, then scanned again a few minutes later with another machine, giving them a second chance to gain entry if they’ve cooled down enough. Otherwise, they’ll have to leave.
“We’ve not had any issues of backups of people wanting to get in because of that automatic temperature check,” Bitner said. “The thermal energy scanner works so fast as people go through.”
Other big changes at the casino complex include:
- Requiring all guests and employees to wear masks or other protective face coverings
- Turning off alternating slot machines to help ensure social distancing on the casino floor
- Adding plexiglass barriers to divide players at table games and customer service counters
- Posting signs throughout the casino complex to encourage social distancing and to help ensure its “Safe + Sound” guidelines are strictly followed
- Putting hand-sanitizing stations at every turn
The safety program extends to the bathrooms, where every other sink and urinal has been taken out of service to keep people from getting too close.
In a video interview shared with the media, Allen said he recalls that in one meeting about the development of the new protocols he remarked: “If it looks like a hospital, that’s fine with me.”
So far, the feedback from employees and guests about the program have been very positive, he said.
“Safety first,” Allen said. “The business will grow. We know eventually, over time, we will have people create some type of ability to cure or restrict the spread of this disease. It’s more about creating an environment where people are safe today.”
Choice to close
Since the tribe is a sovereign government with control over its lands and enterprises, it does not have to follow any local, state or federal laws aimed at stemming the tide of COVID-19 infections. So Seminole Gaming and the Tribal Council are the ones who made the decision to voluntarily close the casinos and hotels.
The safety program evolved during the months the casinos were off-limits to the public.
Indian gaming is big business in Florida, generating billions of dollars in revenue every year based on state data and estimates made by private economists and the media.
After crunching state data, The Miami-Herald found the tribe brought in roughly $2.3 billion in gross revenue from its gaming operations in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2016.
The closures came one week after a Fort Myers man who had visited the casino in Immokalee was diagnosed with coronavirus and died. In a news release at the time, Seminole Tribe officials said it was a decision “not taken lightly,” affecting nearly 14,000 employees statewide.
At first, the tribe said the goal was to protect the employees’ livelihood “without jeopardizing public safety,” but then the situation with the virus reached a more critical point where it no longer felt comfortable taking that kind of risk.
Employees in Immokalee are eager to get back to work and there are hopes of bringing them all back soon, Alvez said.
In the past, it’s usually been a hurricane that’s forced the casino to close, but usually not for long. Even with all the damage caused by a direct hit from Hurricane Irma in Southwest Florida almost three years ago, Alvez recalled the venue only shut down for a day and a half.
Would-be customers have been calling and emailing every day — and driving up often — to see if and when the casino is open. After posting Aug. 29 as the reopening date on its Facebook page, the venue’s followers reacted with clear excitement, including Naples area resident Lisa Wilson Reichard, whose immediate response was “Yay.”
“So excited for everyone … little bit closer to ‘normal’ life,” she said.