Casinos Begin Seeing A Stream Of Masked, Socially Distanced Customers

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The first sign that things are different at Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino from pre-pandemic days is a literal sign, outside the garage elevator: “All guests must have a mask to enter casino.”

The only former sign there warned that you needed to be 21 to enter. Now the casino that reopened Tuesday morning across the river from the city’s downtown is filled with warnings (“Stand here” floor signs for social distancing), restrictions (don’t play a slot machine next to a stranger), and precautions (use hand sanitizer when taking a seat at a table game).

None of that seemed to faze the stream of customers — couldn’t be a flood, since elevators were limited to four at a time — who were allowed entry for the first time in 85 days just before 9 a.m.

They entered a new gambling environment where everyone is masked, some employees wear plastic face shields, tables and chairs are spaced farther apart, and large pink signs advertise ubiquitous disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer stations.

“This is the new world,” said an upbeat Russell Knox, wearing both a mask and face shield while dealing blackjack and just happy to have a chance to work again for the first time since March.

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Customers are thirsting to have fun again

The Rivers Casino was the first to reopen in the state since all 12 casinos closed between March 13-17 due to health concerns from the spread of COVID-19.

Under the Wolf administration’s color-coded system for restoration of business operations as the coronavirus cases gradually ebb, only the Rivers and two others casinos are already in “green phase” locations where such large venues can operate. The Meadows Racetrack & Casino opened hours after Rivers, and Lady Luck Nemacolin plans to open Friday morning.

The casinos are all under an initial restriction of being filled to no more than 50% capacity. That was no concern at Rivers Tuesday morning, as single individuals and couples began taking scattered places at machines to which they were long accustomed before being forced to take an unprecedented 12-week break.

Retiree Jim Burgess, from suburban Pittsburgh, had a morning beer next to him and a bar-top video poker machine in front of him, something that was normal for him and his wife several mornings a month in the pre-COVID days.

He missed such relaxation during nearly three months of home projects from which he finally got a break.

“It was great [with the projects]giving yourself something to do, but this is fun,” Burgess said, dismissing the notion that he was at any health risk from COVID-19 from visiting the casino.

“To be honest, there’s so much contradictory information they’ve put out about it” since the health scares began, he said. Of the casino’s precautions, said Burgess, “They’re doing what they can – it’s probably too much.”

Plexiglass and sanitizer everywhere you look

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board last month issued minimum standards all casinos must meet — including the mandatory masks for all guests and employees — and the casinos were then to submit individual plans tailored to their specific property for approval.

In the case of Rivers, that meant reduced players at table games — a maximum of three for blackjack, six for craps — and half of the chairs in front of slot machines have been removed. All of the machines are operable, and you can slide a chair over to one of your preference, but employees are supposed to monitor to make sure non-family members don’t get too close to one another.

One of the most noticeable changes is the plexiglass installed everywhere, between some of the slot machines, between the sports betting kiosks, between employees and customers at counters. Pink-shirted staff members walk around spraying and wiping machines and other surfaces.

“At first it’s strange to see it all, but it’s what’s needed to get the economy going again,” Amber Peck, the marketing department’s director of player services, said of the partitions, masks, and other visible reminders that many things at the Rivers are different from its first decade of operations.

A number of guests and employees said it’s no longer so jarring to see everyone’s faces covered.

“Maybe at first, yes, but it’s what you see in all the grocery stores,” said cocktail server Nancy Anthony-LaPlace, wearing just a plastic face shield, which she finds more comfortable than a mask.

Casino is hoping for two-thirds of former revenue

Rivers General Manager Bill Keena said he senses a lot of pent-up demand will initially provide the casino, despite its various operating limits, about two-thirds the level of its former revenue.

The casino took in $392 million in gaming revenue last year, a little more than $1 million a day, and he said 60 to 70% of that would be plenty sufficient to justify running the business with reduced costs from having just over half the workforce back. Among the casino’s cutbacks is reduced hours, with the facility closing on weekdays between the low-traffic hours of 4 a.m . and 9 a.m.

But from those among the first to come through the doors again, the appreciation of a chance to resume a favorite pastime for any part of the day was evident.

“This is the first time in months we’ve gotten out of the house for anything other than shopping,” said Dave McCleary, a retiree who came to tag along with his wife, Edie, who enjoys the slots.

“I come to watch … to watch the money go down the drain,” he said with a chuckle, while commenting it’s hard to trust any information relating to the coronavirus threat and he believes they’re safe at the casino.

John Ruzomberka Jr., 75, was happy to get back to making his regular 10-minute drive from suburban Shaler to the casino, where he headed for his favorite Buffalo slot machine.

Winning or losing isn’t usually too important to him, and it would matter even less so on this day.

“I felt like I was sitting at home and couldn’t go anywhere,” he said of recent months. “It’s just nice to get out for something relaxing where I can enjoy myself.”

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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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