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Pandemic hit to per cap payments smaller than feared

Half of the casino profits fund tribal government programs, and the other half is distributed to tribal members as per capita payments. File photo Half of the casino profits fund tribal government programs, and the other half is distributed to tribal members as per capita payments. File photo

Due to decreased casino profits related to the pandemic, December per capita payments to members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will be only about two-thirds the size of last year’s distribution — but that number is better than expected.

The pre-tax distribution will be $4,899, a $2,315 reduction over the record-breaking $7,214 tribal members received last December. The December distribution, which is based on casino revenues between April and September, took a substantially bigger hit than the June distribution, which is based on revenues from the October to March time period and so captured only a few weeks’ worth of impact from the pandemic. In June, tribal members received a $5,859 check that represented a $450 decrease from the $6,309 distribution sent out in June 2019.

In developing the budget for fiscal year 2021, Principal Chief Richard Sneed based expected revenues on 50 percent of normal casino projections, shooting the middle between local management’s optimism as to the feasibility of achieving 70 percent and Caesar’s Corporate’s warning that affiliates should brace for 30 or 40 percent. The tribe allocates half of the casino profits to its government and the other half to its people in the form of per capita payments, so the December distribution indicates that in the first six full months of the pandemic profits came in at 67.9 percent of those recorded last year — which itself represented a record high.

In a statement posted on Facebook announcing the December figure, Principal Chief Richard Sneed expressed his gratitude to casino staff.

“As always, my thanks go to the many Harrah’s Cherokee staff that work hard every day to make this possible,” he said.

This has been a tough year for the casino. The facilities were closed completely from March 18 to May 12, the first closure in the tribe’s 23-year gaming history.

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They reopened May 13 on an invitation-only basis, and then to the general public on May 28, though only at 30 percent capacity. 

On Sept. 3, Sneed issued an executive order allowing the casinos to operate at 50 percent capacity, along with gyms and bowling alleys such as the bowling alley contained within the Cherokee casino facility. However, due to social distancing protocols the casinos are still operating well below the 50 percent mark.

While 2020 per capita distributions are markedly lower than the record-setting checks tribal members received last year, the total distribution for this year is larger than the one members received only five years ago.

In 2015, tribal members received $4,810 in June and $5,595 in December for a total distribution of $10,405, about $350 less than the $10,758 distributed in 2020. The total annual distribution for 2020 is also higher than the $9,318 received in 2007, one year prior to the economic crash of 2008.

However, it remains to be seen what the future holds for 2021 — the fate of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy as a whole will have a substantial impact on casino profits in the year ahead.

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