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San Diego County officials walk back comments on casinos reopening

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Posted at 4:57 PM, May 14, 2020

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — A drastic change in tone from the county's top health officer, 24 hours after vowing to work with the CDC to prevent local casinos from re-opening next week.

"Tribal nations are sovereign entities, so that's my position today," said Dr. Wilma Wooten, the county's public health officer, during a Thursday news conference.

But on Wednesday, Dr. Wooten had a very different stance on the issue of local casinos reopening.

RELATED: San Diego County health officials critical of casinos' plans to reopen next week

"We feel our health officers order extend to the tribal nations in this situation and we will work with the CDC to address this issue," she'd said during the county's daily COVID-19 update.

Legal experts told 10News that tribes have the law on their side.

"State and local governments have no jurisdiction over tribal lands and would not have any authority to stop any tribal gaming facility from reopening," said James Meggesto, an attorney specializing in Native American law.

RELATED: Viejas Casino set to reopen on May 18 amid pandemic

Meggesto says tribal governments make the decisions when it comes to their gaming operations.

When coronavirus surfaced, there was no federal directive forcing them to close, they did it on their own.

"The national gaming commission made clear they were not going to issue any sort of blanket order closing tribal casinos in the country," explained Meggesto.

So when it comes to reopening, it's up to each individual tribe.

A recent survey shows nearly 40% of San Diegans say they visited a Southern California casino in the past year.

Meggesto says it's in the casinos' best interest to make sure staff and guests are as safe as possible.

"I don't think any of them have made either the decision to reopen or are planning to reopen if they don't feel there are adequate safety measures in place," he says.

Only three area casinos have announced dates to reopen: Viejas Casino (May 18), Sycuan Casino (May 20), and Valley View Casino (May 22).