UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY — Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort reopened for business on Monday, May 18, and by so doing is believed to have become the first of the state’s tribal casinos to do so since the COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary shutdowns.

The noon opening was a new normal: Customers had their temperature checked before entering, staff and many customers wore face masks. Slot machines were separated by plexiglass shields and disinfected whenever a player left. The casino reduced its number of slot machines by half to 584 to allow for social distancing space. It was limiting customers to no more than 780 people in the 71,000-square-foot facility.

“We chose today to reopen our facility based on the simple fact that we believe we have incorporated and put into place practices and protocols that ensure the safety of our employees and our guests who choose to come to entertain themselves at the Upper Sioux Community,” Kevin Jensvold, tribal chairman, told reporters at a news conference Monday afternoon.

“We all understand the dangers and risks associated with what we are doing,” he said, emphasizing that it was employing safety protocols that exceeded guidelines.

“We are not arrogant to believe we are any better suited than anybody else. We’re only the first to do so,” he said.

The chairman added that he believed waiting two to three months to reopen would accomplish nothing. The very same protocols would be implemented.

The news conference started minutes after the chairman received a call from the Minnesota Attorney General’s office. The chairman said the caller questioned if he knew of the governor’s executive order closing bars and restaurants.

“I take that as a direct affront and offense on behalf of my people,” Jensvold said.

Tribal leaders in the state have been in communication with the governor's office and the state Health Department during the pandemic, but the governor's executive orders do not apply to sovereign tribal nations.

The community was making its own decision on reopening as a sovereign nation, Jensvold said.

The chairman said the Upper Sioux Community had temporarily closed its gaming operations on March 18 at the request of Gov. Tim Walz. The governor with his executive orders has sought to slow the spread of COVID-19 as hospitals acquired supplies and prepared to handle a surge in patients.

Jensvold said he told the governor on a conference call held less than two weeks ago that the community intended to reopen operations May 18. He said he invited Walz to come and see how a competent tribal community could put in place the protocols that would accomplish what the governor wants for his own state.

“That invitation was met with silence,” he said.

Jensvold said the decision to reopen was not made due to a fiscal crisis, but he pointed to the economic challenges the closing has posed. The casino revenues are important to 1,500 people when considering all of its employees, tribal members and their families, he told reporters.

The gaming operations employ 350 people, with an annual payroll of $11 million. The operations are responsible for $10 million to $15 million in purchases for services and supplies annually, according to General Manager Barry Joannides.

The decision to temporarily close the operations in March was the most difficult he has had to make in his 15 years as tribal chairman, Jensvold said, pointing to the impact on families. Prairie’s Edge Casino Resort continued to provide health insurance to the employees during the shutdown.

The tribal board began discussing the reopening shortly after the closing, and reached consensus Friday to reopen May 18. Staff underwent extensive training last week to prepare for the new protocols. The protocols were outlined in a seven-sheet packet provided to reporters, and cover everything from a six-foot separation of dining room tables to not allowing buffets.

Two Twin Cities casinos will reopen May 26, with strict safety protocols planned for guests and employees. The Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community on Monday announced it will reopen Mystic Lake and Little Six casinos using a phased approach following the health and safety guidelines of state and federal authorities.

The St. Paul Pioneer Press contributed to this report.