More Casinos Open Across the U.S.
By June 1, it’s expected that almost half of the almost 1,000 casino that closed during the Covid-19 pandemic will have reopened. But there’s still a long way to go as several states are nowhere near ready to get started again with their struggling casinos. Foxwoods (l.) and Mohegan Sun opened in Connecticut las weekend over the objections of the governor.
The shutdown has finally ended for some U.S. casinos. For now, all of them will operate under extraordinary restrictions, with capacity limits, social distancing requirements, and other safety measures. Here is a look at some returning markets and how operators are handling the crisis.
In Alabama, Wind Creek Hospitality CEO Jay Dorris said small groups of invited guests will be invited to a soft opening of the company’s four casino hotels on Thursday, June 4, followed by a public opening on Monday, June 8. The properties, owned by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, are located in Wetumpka, Atmore, Montgomery and the Mobile Greyhound Track.
Dorris stated once the casinos reopen, at one-third capacity, special waiting areas will be available for guests if a property is at maximum occupancy. However, Wind Creek guests can make a reservation for a particular session up to 14 days in advance. “Just like your favorite restaurant on a Friday night, a reservation isn’t required. But if you absolutely want to join us on a given day and time, reservations are available,” Dorris said.
He noted the company has been working to create new health and safety measures under guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the Alabama Department of Public Health, a Montgomery pulmonologist and an epidemiology team from a non-profit organization representing 30 federally recognized tribal nations.
Dorris said public areas in the casino will be closed four times a day for 1‐hour intensive cleanings, meaning guests will have to exit the property after each 5-hour session, except hotel guests. These cleaning periods are “a step above” efforts by other casinos, Dorris said.
Other new rules will include mandatory face masks for guests and employees; players who do not have their own mask may acquire one for a small donation supporting local first responders, health care providers and patient relief funds. Patrons who refuse to wear one will be asked to leave, Dorris said. Smoking only will be allowed in designated areas. Restaurants will be reconfigured to assure six feet between diners and wait-staff service will replace self-service dining options.
Ventilation will be increased and hand sanitizer dispensers will be located throughout the properties. Dorris said Wind Creek “may deny entrance to our properties to guests who arrive from a county that may represent minimal, moderate or substantial levels of Covid-19 community transmission.” Also, groups of more than four people will be asked to separate into socially distanced groups.
In Arkansas, the Pine Bluff City Council debated a resolution asking the Saracen Casino Annex to remain closed through June 18. But the resolution lost in a 3-5 vote and the casino has reopened. Operating hours and capacity are limited and requirements for social distancing, personal protective equipment and sanitizing protocols were implemented after approval from the state Health Department.
Council Member Ivan Whitfield sponsored the resolution. He said he was concerned about a new wave of Covid-19 infections since more businesses were reopening. “The bottom line is to protect and promote the public health of our citizens. I just think it’s going to be a terrible, terrible day a few weeks from now. I hope not, but I think we’ll be allowing it to happen if we vote against this.”
Whitfield continued, “This doesn’t say we’re pulling the plug. When people come to Pine Bluff, it’s always a partnership, that’s what people tell us. Well, if we’re in a partnership, we should be able to ask certain things of our other partners.” He said by asking the casino to remain closed, “we can look at our citizens and say we tried our best not to create a hot spot in our community.”
All four Desert Diamond Casinos, operated by the Tohono O’odham Gaming Enterprise, will reopen June 5.
They will implement new health and sanitizing protocols, including deep cleaning during the hours when the casinos are closed, social distancing and protective equipment such as Plexiglas barriers.
Guests will be scanned for temperature and employees will be screened daily for symptoms. Masks are required by all. Occupancy will be limited, at least in the early phase.
Indian casinos in California largely ignored appeals by Governor Gavin Newsom to delay reopening. Since tribal casinos are on sovereign land, the governor’s suggestion carries no legal weight. Casinos have been reopening throughout the state for more than a week, with Win-River in Redding the first out the gate.
The governor had preferred that casinos reopen in Stage 3 of his reopening plan, while the state was at Stage 2 when casinos actually began opening their doors. The state’s 66 card clubs, which are not on reservations, are subject to Newsom’s executive order, and so remain dark.
The Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribes, operators of Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods, planned to reopen June 1, in defiance of Governor Ned Lamont’s call that they wait. Lamont called the move “incredibly risky,” but lacks the authority to enforce the shutdown sovereign tribal entities.
He told reporters, “We have a number of options. I’m talking to people that represent the people who work at these casinos. Do they feel safe? We could always advise people driving into the casinos, ‘Hey, do you know the governor has said this is not safe, especially if you’re over 65?’”
He hinted that the state could pull the casinos’ liquor licenses, although he called that option “premature.”
Since it looks like the tribes would be the first in New England to open, Lamont worries they might draw visitors from Massachusetts, New York and Rhode Island, something that in normal times would be seen as a plus.
The tribes have plans for reopening that would keep theaters, convention centers and buffets closed, and to hold no concerts, but allow some access to machines and gaming tables. Their air filtration systems have also been upgraded. Their focus is on getting 10,000 workers back on the job.
Pequot Chairman Rodney Butler declared, “One need only look at the tragic map depicting the disproportionate share of unemployed in eastern and southeastern Connecticut” to understand the economic impact of the casinos’ closing.
The tribes have worked together to develop new safety protocols and procedures that include infrared temperature scanners, sanitation proceeds, and constantly replacement of dice, cards and tiles used at table games.
The first of Seminole Hard Rock’s six Florida casinos to reopen, the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa welcomed about 1,000 invited players and their guests on Thursday, May 21. Hard Rock International Chairman and Seminole Gaming Chief Executive Officer Jim Allen said the success of the Tampa reopening will “100 percent” affect when and how the company’s other five casinos reopen.
“I don’t think we have a specific timetable. We’re kind of starting at ground zero here. There’s a lot of the restaurants, retail and live entertainment that are still closed, including half the hotel. So as business volumes hopefully continue to grow and we can be effective at creating a safe environment, then we’ll slowly look at opening that valve,” Allen said.
The Tampa resort—and the others when they reopen—has instituted a program called Safe and Sound regarding new health and safety requirements in light of Covid-19. That includes thermal imaging at the entrances. “The technology is amazing. The scanner can effectively read about six to eight people coming through the queue at one time,” Allen said. Anyone with a temperature above 100.4 degrees will be politely invited to a private area where a more thorough reading is done, he stated.
Also, the casino is operating at 50 percent capacity. “For every one machine on, there’s two machines off,” Allen said. Plexiglass dividers have been installed at poker and table games, he added.
Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds issued an emergency proclamation declaring the state’s 19 casinos may reopen at 50 percent capacity on June 1, the day the state’s ban on gatherings of more than 10 people will expire. Casinos also must reduce their gaming positions by half.
Reynolds said, “For our state, recovery means striking a balance between getting life and business back to normal while continuing to manage the virus activity. Our recovery is contingent upon our ability to protect both the lives and livelihoods of Iowans. We can’t prioritize one over the other.”
Keith W. Henson, senior vice president of operations at Boyd Gaming, owner of Diamond Jo Casino in Dubuque, said new restrictions and increased sanitizing are essential to reopening. “As we return to business in Iowa, our highest priority will be protecting the health and safety of every person who comes through our doors,” Henson said.
Employees will be required to have their temperature checked and must wear face masks, and maintain social distancing requirements on the casino floor and in restaurants, Henson added.
In fact, all Iowa casinos must ensure social distancing, with gaming positions at least six feet apart. Protective shields also must be installed at table games. Casinos may not reopen buffets or salad bars, and all properties must increase hygiene practices.
A long line of players snaked around Hollywood Casino at Kansas Speedway in Kansas City on Monday, May 25. In fact, some potential patrons gave up and left as the queue slowly inched forward. Vice President and General Manager Rick Skinner said that was due to limited capacity and mandatory temperature screenings of guests.
Despite the early lines, Skinner said the casino’s reopening day went smoothly. “Everybody seems to be having fun. We’ve sanitized this building within an inch of its life. I personally have been involved in it, so I know for a fact all 2,000 machines are completely sanitized,” he said.
Skinner noted employees are required to wear masks but customers are not. He said half of the slots are disabled and table games and poker are unavailable. Floor decals and signage have been installed to “strictly enforce social distancing guidelines in areas where lines typically form,” Skinner added. Food service is limited to pre-packaged items.
Skinner said the casino will close between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. daily so staff can deep clean surfaces and machines. Slot machines also are wiped down frequently.
In Wichita, the Kansas Star Casino reopened Saturday, May 30. Owners Boyd Gaming said only slot machines will be available at first; poker and table games will remain closed until further notice. Kansas Star Vice President and General Manager Jeff Babinski said, “Throughout our property, we will implement comprehensive safety protocols approved by local, state and federal health officials.”
Beyond that, Babinski said Kansas Star also will implement “Boyd Clean” safety and health requirements. These include mandatory face masks and temperature checks for employees; guest temperature checks and screenings; social distancing and occupancy limits; enhanced cleaning and sanitation; hand sanitizer stations throughout the property; and limited hours.
Several of Michigan’s 12 federally recognized tribes plan to reopen their 23 casinos, despite Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order that casinos remain closed at least through June 12. The tribes “are regulated by their own gaming commissions and under federal law,” said Mary Kay Bean, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Gaming Control Board. Twenty-five Indian and three commercial casinos operate in the state.
Numerous new safety measures will include checking temperatures, requiring masks, limiting the number of open slots and table games and reducing food service.
Detroit’s three commercial casinos—MGM Grand, Greektown and MotorCity—remain closed until at least June 12, under orders from the governor. The city is losing about $600,000 a day in casino tax revenue due to the shutdowns, according to city estimates. Casino wagering taxes represent about 16 percent of Detroit’s general fund revenue and its third largest revenue source, after local income taxes and state revenue sharing payments.
Whitmer has not indicated when she will allow Detroit’s casinos to reopen. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has said the city’s casinos may initially reopen at only 25 percent to 30 percent capacity for several weeks or months.
Several Native American tribes in Minnesota planned to reopen their casinos on June 1. Most will operate at half capacity, and require guests to submit to temperature checks and wear face masks. Casino employees’ health will be closely monitored.
Mystic Lake in Prior Lake is representative of the tribal casinos’ approach. It will enforcing social distancing, install Plexiglas shields and increase sanitization procedures. Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community Gaming Enterprise President and CEO Angela Heikes said, “We believe that it is up to us to build the confidence and trust of our guests and our teams. We are in a new place and a new time. We’ll be dealing with Covid-19 for a very long time.”
Mystic Lake will use every other slot machine and limit table-game seats. Also, the buffet and sit-down restaurants will remain closed but pre-packaged dining options will be offered. The hotel will reopen in phases but the spa and pool will remain closed.
In Missouri, St. Charles County officials met with Ameristar Casino Resort Spa management to discuss how the casino, closed since March 17, plans to handle the large crowd expected Monday, June 1 when casinos reopen statewide.
However, Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming, owner of the casino, recently filed a WARN Act notice with the Missouri Office of Workforce Development, stating, “Due to evolving guidance from public health authorities and government agencies, we cannot currently determine exactly how many team members will be laid off, or which individual team members will be impacted.” The notice indicated 947 employees would be permanently laid off.
Ameristar in Kansas City also filed notice with the state that nearly 600 employees there could be affected. Employees who aren’t laid off may expect their furloughs to last longer than six months.
In the St. Louis area, Ameristar could open with little competition, since two St. Louis County casinos—Hollywood Casino and River City Casino—remain closed under stay-at-home orders issued by St. Louis County. Lumiere Place in downtown St. Louis also plans to open Monday, June 1. Two casinos in Metro East in Illinois—the Casino Queen and Alton Belle–will remain closed.
A spokesman for Boyd Gaming stated, “It is very difficult to predict what business levels will look like when we reopen, and how long it will take for business to recover to normal levels.”
As of Monday, June 1, all commercial casinos will be reopened in Mississippi after being closed about two months due to Covid-19. The Mississippi Gaming Commission allowed them to reopen under state and local health and safety requirements, including occupancy limits, fewer table-game players and enhanced cleaning procedures.
Several of the casinos reconfigured gaming floors to allow social distancing; others turned off every other or every third slot machine. Some have not reopened table games; others have limited players and installed plastic shields. Many casinos suspend activity during certain hours to wipe down games and surfaces. All casinos must offer hand sanitizing throughout their facility.
At Full House Resort’s Silver Slipper Casino Bay St. Louis, reopened on May 21, officials said gaming revenue increased 12.3 percent compared to the 5-day Memorial Day in 2019, despite limited capacity and reduced slot machine and table game seating.
Full House CEO Dan Lee also said the company reopened the hotel for invited guests due to “pent-up demand.” He noted, “That helped drive the higher win per customer. Our customers know the Silver Slipper, know that our team has always kept it clean and sanitary, and even more so, of course, today.”
Still, Lee stressed, “this was just one casino in just one market for just one weekend. It is, of course, encouraging for the future, but we are still, worldwide, facing unprecedented unemployment and other economic and health challenges. So, it’s very nice to be able to welcome back many of our employees and customers, but we remain cautious in planning for the future.”
Nevada’s casinos will reopen Thursday, June 4, in the face of unprecedented operational challenges.
Like most of their counterparts in the U.S., Silver State casinos will be working to ramp up business in the midst of stringent health and safety measures and social distancing. They’ll also be trying to gauge demand while limiting guests to 50 percent of maximum occupancy.
State leaders and public health officials are sounding a positive note, saying the close monitoring of pandemic data shows everything trending in the right direction. Buoyed by testing results that show new infections on the decline in Nevada for the last 30 days, they’re confident the state’s healthcare system will be able to accommodate visitors as well as residents should infections increase.
“We’re welcoming visitors back to Nevada on June 4, but we’re going to take every precaution possible,” Governor Steve Sisolak said in a press briefing last week. “We’re encouraging visitors to come and enjoy themselves and have a good time.”
The stakes could not be higher, said Robert Lang, executive director of the Brookings Mountain West think tank at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “Las Vegas,” he said, “can never be known as the place where people go and get sick.”
After more than two months shut down due to Covid-19, some of the 130 tribal casinos in Oklahoma are preparing welcome back guests.
The Cherokee Nation remains a major hold-out regarding reopening casinos. Cherokee Nation Businesses announced its Responsible Hospitality plan but did not include a reopening date for its 10 casinos in northeast Oklahoma, which employ a total of 7,700 people. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said, “I’m proud of CNB’s leadership team for prioritizing the health and safety of our business employees and customers. Cherokee Nation’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has set a high standard and this phased reopening plan is an extension of that standard.”
The plan details virus protocols for gaming, food and beverage, hotel, retail, golf and live entertainment, including physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation and noninvasive temperature screenings for employees and guests. Other new rules include limited hours of operation, occupancy limits and the use of masks by employees and guests who are asked to bring their own.
The Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma planned to reopen its casinos on June 1 with increased health and safety measures. Some of those new ruse include rearranging slots and restaurant tables to ensure social distancing; directional marks on floors in areas where lines typically form; hand sanitation throughout the property; guest masks made available but not required. Clear partitions have been installed at all transaction areas. All resort associates must wear a mask and complete a daily health questionnaire.
Cleaning and sanitizing will occur more frequently in all public spaces. The pool will remain open with occupancy limits. The spa, cinema, bowling alley and arcade will operate at reduced capacity. Valet or shuttle service are closed until further notice.
The Wyandotte Nation also planned to reopen its River Bend Casino & Hotel in Wyandotte on June 1 with 30 percent occupancy limits in the casino and restaurant and 50 percent in the hotel. The tribe’s Lucky Turtle Casino in Wyandotte will remain closed until further notice.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has issued a 10-page document outlining reopening protocols for casino licensees as they reopen following the Covid-19 shutdown, with social distancing, physical dividers between players, and at least temporarily, no live poker.
According to the guidelines, customers and employees must wear face masks, casinos will need to install Plexiglas dividers and hand-sanitizer stations, and some slot machines will be disabled to enforce social distancing requirements.
“Poker rooms are not authorized to operate due to players handling cards and chips,” the board said in the guidelines. Poker room operations will be reexamined based on changing guidance from health officials.
Casinos will be permitted to reopen only when the state moves the counties where they are located into the “green” phase of Governor Tom Wolf’s three-phase reopening plan. The green phase removes all restrictions. Gaming establishments in Western Pennsylvania, where the outbreak is less severe, will likely reopen first. The four casinos in the Philadelphia area will likely be among the last to reopen because all of Southeastern Pennsylvania is still in the “red” phase.
“As conditions throughout the commonwealth improve and the reopening of casinos is authorized, the PGCB desires to assure that re-openings occur in a manner which promote the safety of casino patrons and employees alike as well as assure an environment conducive to proper regulatory oversight,” said Executive Director Kevin O’Toole in a statement on the guidelines.
“We fully anticipate that we will work with the industry as it seeks to become, once again, an economic engine for Pennsylvania and to restore the first-rate entertainment facilities each of our licensees has developed.”
Several casinos in Wisconsin have announced reopening plans, but the Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee remains closed, with no reopening date announced. Milwaukee County officials said the county lost $1.9 million due to the closure. Potawatomi Public Relations Specialist Jay Saunders said the hotel and casino is working with health officials for a reopening plan.
The casino paid its 2,700 employees through April 12, then had to temporarily furlough 90 percent of workers, Saunders said.
Ho-Chunk Gaming Madison casino reopened Wednesday, May 27 after being closed more than two months. Ho-Chunk Nation President Marlon WhiteEagle said, “As surrounding states still have stay-at-home orders in place, we want to respect that and use effective integration of public health measures. We will work within each local municipality to help protect the safety of our local community.”
At first, only Player’s Club members will be allowed in, WhiteEagle said. They’ll find only 400 of the casino’s 1,300 slots available and no food or beverage service, as well as being required to have their temperature taken before being allowed to enter. Plexiglass windows have been installed wherever transactions occur and hand sanitizer is located throughout the venue.
Also, everyone within a Ho-Chunk Nation property must wear a face mask when not able to maintain six-foot social distancing. WhiteEagle said the facility has been disinfected and sanitized with an antimicrobial surface treatment sprayed throughout the facility that lasts for 30 days.
Oneida Casino in Green Bay and North Star Mohican Casino in Bowler both reopened Tuesday, May 26 with new health and safety measures in place. Both casinos are offering slots only and changed operating hours to allow deep cleaning. Smoking is prohibited at both locations. Guests at Oneida must have their temperatures taken at the door and also must wear face masks.