Among The Casino Changes Due To COVID-19, You May Need To Make A Reservation

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Jay Dorris doesn’t know when the Wind Creek Bethlehem casino he oversees will reopen its doors. He just knows it’s going to be a lot different from the last time any visitors were inside, on March 15.

Masks will probably be required on everyone, whether employees or guests. Spacing requirements will have to be maintained among the more than 3,000 slot machines and 250 table games. Systematic deep cleaning of every aspect of the facility will be methodically scheduled.

And in the most dramatic change of all, you may need a reservation to enter and be expected to leave at the end of a defined time period — most likely a five-hour session — in order for employees to sanitize everything for the next group allowed in.

“We’re going to open with reduced capacity,” said Dorris, president and CEO of Pennsylvania’s second-busiest casino and its parent firm, Alabama-based Wind Creek Hospitality.

“We won’t be able to have as many people on the property at one time. We want to be available to as many of our customers as we can, but we’ve got a capacity restraint now,” due to COVID-19 social distancing guidelines that recommend people stay six feet apart to protect against transmission of the virus.

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Some PA casinos could reopen before others

It could be untold weeks before the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, in consultation with Gov. Tom Wolf and state health officials, determine it’s safe to reopen the 12 casinos that have been shuttered since mid-March.

Kevin O’Toole, the state board’s executive director, said Wednesday that it’s not possible to say if that will occur in May. It is likely, he said, that some casinos would reopen before others, based on the extent to which COVID-19 cases have occurred in surrounding areas.

“If the Philadelphia area meets the criteria to reopen, that might be a little bit further down the line than, say, Erie or Fayette County. We don’t know yet, so you can’t really assume anything,” O’Toole told Penn Bets.

Elsewhere, casinos have begun reopening on a small basis around the country, with a variety of precautions in place. Those are mostly tribal casinos able to make their own decisions, but even in states where commercial casinos are tightly regulated and remain closed, the agencies overseeing them have begun issuing health and safety guidelines to cover future operations.

The Nevada Gaming Control Board has proposed that casinos be limited to 50% their normal capacity, that space between slot machines be increased, and that table games have limited seating — such as three to a blackjack table, four for poker, and six at a craps game.

Seating in bars and restaurants would be reduced, hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes should be widely available, and plans should address how to regularly disinfect all games, machines, surfaces, chips, and cards, according to the board’s guidelines, which are to be reviewed Thursday at a special hearing of the Nevada Gaming Commission.

PA casinos have been drafting individual plans

O’Toole said the Pennsylvania board has laid out no specific requirements to the state’s operators, but instead has a “collaborative” process in which they have had ongoing discussions and the casinos have all submitted draft plans for review.

Each casino could have distinct issues based on size, layout, amenities, and more, so the board would rather they propose individual plans while all adhering to some common expectations for health and safety, O’Toole said. For instance, he does not believe any casino will initially be offering valet service.

“There’s an aspect of somebody else getting into your car and parking it that doesn’t meet the standard of protecting both employees and customers,” he said.

Other than Wind Creek Bethlehem, no other casino inside or outside Pennsylvania — nor any regulatory agency, for that matter — has publicly proposed anything like the type of reservation system Dorris described in a message posted last week on the casino’s website.

He first outlined there the plans for a “soft reopening” — whenever the state gaming board allows — in which small groups of invited guests would be allowed on the property to help test new policies and procedures.

Afterward, he wrote, a reservation system would be created for the general public — something that could represent a remarkable alteration to customers’ ability on a whim to go spend a night gambling.

Getting into casino could be a gamble itself

Dorris’ posted message, noting the capacity limits upon reopening, stated that “we don’t want the excitement of visiting our property spoiled due to waiting in line to get in. … This system will allow guests to ‘reserve’ a day and time in advance and will allow us to always keep the number of guests and team members on property and on the casino floor at a safe number.”

Elaborating in an interview this week with Penn Bets, Dorris said it doesn’t mean someone without an advance reservation wouldn’t get in. But they might have to wait while the casino first admits those with reservations at a certain time and assesses whether it has reached its maximum patronage — a number that Dorris said is still to be determined.

An impromptu future visit to Wind Creek Bethlehem might thus be a roll of the dice, like trying to get into a popular restaurant on a weekend night without planning ahead, something a casino patron never had to consider before.

Dorris said the plan calls for holding four different sessions during the day, expecting all visitors to leave between each while employees stop everything to spend an hour on deep cleaning of the property.

The limitations would clearly inhibit the revenue potential of a casino accustomed to generating more than $500 billion a year from its slots and table games. That’s part of the new world inhabited by Wind Creek Bethlehem and its peers, at least temporarily, Dorris observed.

“We don’t want to sacrifice any revenue, but we don’t want to get sick either,” he said. “As we move collectively through this experience, if our customers get to the point where they don’t feel safe, that’s a very bad situation and we won’t ever get the revenue back. … Any revenue coming in is going to be better than we’re doing right now.”

PA casinos positioned better than some

The CEO declined to specify just how much the shutdown has cost Wind Creek Bethlehem, but at bare minimum, without counting loss in food, beverages, hotel stays, and more, it is forfeiting some $10 million weekly in gaming revenue, or more than $70 million since the closure.

None of Pennsylvania’s other casinos has been as forthcoming publicly about how things could be different upon reopening.

In response to queries about their plans, most others responded simply that they prioritize the health and safety of both employees and guests, and at a later date they will unveil details of reopening.

While not involved in any Pennsylvania casinos, Richard Schuetz, a longtime casino industry executive who is semi-retired and a part-time resident of the state, said he believes Wind Creek is on the right track.

“I think it’s worth a shot, because otherwise I don’t know how you’re going to control it,” he said of managing maximum occupancy effectively. “If it doesn’t work, then they can stop it.”

In general, Schuetz believes the Pennsylvania properties will be able to return to some level of normalcy much better than counterparts in Nevada.

He noted that in Las Vegas, much of the business comes from conferences that have been canceled or relies on tourists’ willingness to fly in from around the country, which is now a dubious proposition to many potential visitors. The casinos there also rely to a much larger extent on nightclubs and live entertainment that, for the foreseeable future, are not an option.

“In Pennsylvania, it’s a locals market, not like people flying in from all over the world,” Schuetz noted. “A husband and wife can have their masks on, go there to play and get their entertainment, clean their hands afterward, and go home.

“You’ll have an idea [across Pennsylvania] of where you have pockets of problems and where you don’t … and the Pennsylvania casinos are spread out in an ideal way, where they serve a whole bunch of different local markets in the state.”

The new atmosphere is another consideration

But how will Joe and Jane Gambler react to an environment unlike any they encountered in a casino before — with everyone wearing masks, no chance to be greeted by smiling employees, new limits on interaction with both the staff and with other patrons with whom they might have rooted for wins?

“People go to casinos to escape — they don’t want to go in and address reality,” Schuetz noted.

That different atmosphere was acknowledged by Dorris, who has been managing the casinos of Alabama’s Poarch Creek Indians since 2007. The tribe, which also has three Alabama casinos among its properties, acquired the Bethlehem casino last year.

“It’s tough, [losing]  that connection, being able to see someone smile — it all contributes to that sense of escape,” he agreed.

But the casino has no choice in taking precautions, he said, whether it be requiring masks, the reservation system, or other new steps — especially in light of its reliance on a customer base that skews toward an age where people are more susceptible to serious harm from COVID-19.

Dorris said the revenue factors involved — including the additional daily cost involved in extra cleaning, providing masks and sanitizer, etc. — can’t be at the forefront of decision-making at such a time.

That is a position O’Toole stressed is held by all of the operators and by the regulatory agency as well, in a state more dependent on tax revenue from gaming than any other in the U.S.

“We want people to be safe, to be in a position where they feel comfortable, and revenue has no bearing on that,” O’Toole said. “It’s the same objective from operators. … We’re all adjusting to a new way of living, and businesses everywhere have to adjust, and our casinos recognize that.”

Photo by Roy Boyce / Shutterstock.com

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Gary Rotstein

Gary is a longtime journalist, having spent three decades covering gambling, state government, and other issues for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in addition to stints as managing editor of the Bedford (Pa.) Gazette and as a reporter for United Press International and the Middletown (Conn.) Press. Contact Gary at [email protected].

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