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Family mourns dad who died of COVID-19 after returning to work at a casino

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Posted at 10:09 PM, Jun 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-16 22:43:43-04

As COVID -19 cases continue to climb across the state, so too are the number of people lost to the virus.

Many Arizonans wonder if we reopened too soon.

From the moment casinos across the Valley opened their doors, thousands lined up to get through them.

Now, the family of an employee at The Lone Butte Gila River Casino says reopening cost their father his life.

"It feels like a bad dream that I want to wake up from, but I can't," said Shawne Jackson, fighting through tears.

Jackson is mourning the loss of her father, Robert Washington Jr. The patriarch of their family; her hero.

The pain they feel now has influenced them to take a stand.

"I don't believe he was comfortable returning to work. He was very concerned," said Jackson.

Washington was 68, a diabetic and had just recently beat prostate cancer.

In May, when casinos were given the green light to open by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey, Washington, a security guard for Gila River Casino Lone Butte in Chandler, was called back to work.

"He was tested prior to going back, and from what I understand, he tested negative," said Jackson.

She says her father had a strong work ethic and financially needed to return to work. As someone with preexisting conditions, his family says he was told he could drive a golf cart around the perimeter of the casino and have limited interaction with customers. Still, they say he was posted at the door instead. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 five days later. Symptoms began appearing shortly after; he was hospitalized and later died on June 11.

His relatives aren't the only ones to come forward regarding the safety inside Gila River casinos.

ABC15 has received multiple emails from other employees saying people continue to get sick and managers are keeping others in the dark regarding positive tests.

Pointing out a cavalier attitude towards masks by customers, Jackson believes that starts at the top with our Governor.

"They're looking to you to lead by example, and when you tell them that it's okay to not mask up, that's sad, that's a tragedy because you're putting innocent people in harm's way," said Jackson.

However, just last Thursday, Governor Ducey publicly said masks should be worn if social distancing is a problem, but did not mandate the use of them.

Gila River instituted several precautions before opening, saying they would only operate at 50% capacity, provide masks and install Plexiglas barriers near slot machines. Jackson says she doesn't believe it's been strenuously enforced. She's now making sure her dad doesn't become just another number.

"Just like you value your life, value the life of that other person and take it seriously," said Jackson.

Gila River Casinos issued this statement to ABC15:

We are deeply saddened by the passing of one of our Lone Butte team members. He had been a valued member of our team and our deepest condolences go out to his family, friends and coworkers. This is a heartbreaking situation for all Gila River Hotels & Casinos team members. We are not aware at this time of the actual cause of his death.

"Our commitment has always been to mitigate the spread of the virus as much as possible since we reopened our doors on May 15, 2020," said Doug Simpson, Chief Security and Surveillance Officer. "We are the only casino in the State of Arizona that proactively does employee testing on a bi-weekly basis because we care about every team member and guest that comes through our doors."

The health and safety of our employees and guests is our main priority which is why we implemented extensive safety measures across our three properties upon reopening, including a new casino floor layout to ensure physical distancing, increased cleaning and sanitization on high touch point areas, reduced capacity at each property, as well as providing our employees with personal protective equipment and testing them every two weeks.

With respect to our procedures, we are constantly reviewing and updating all of our procedures to ensure that they are the very best possible and will continue to improve them every day as we can.

In conjunction with the guidance set forth by the State of Arizona, all employees and guests are required to wear masks when on property. If they do not have one, one will be provided for them.

We will continue to work closely with public health officials, our team members and our community to monitor the pandemic to follow and implement recommended safety measures to protect the health and wellbeing of all of our employees and guests. Again, our thoughts and prayers are with the family at this time.