This Week Casinos Are Closer To Normal Than Any Time Since COVID Pandemic Began 15 Months Ago

A visit to little Lady Luck in Fayette County shows how the pre-COVID era has mostly returned, but in a cleaner way.
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When Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin General Manager Gary Hendricks entered the venue on Memorial Day, he was delighted by something just inside that he hadn’t seen in many months.

It was simply the sight of six chairs at a blackjack table — something taken for granted in the first seven years of the operation of Pennsylvania’s smallest casino, but a number that was slashed by half in mid-2020 by COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

Restrictions on normal operations of Lady Luck and Pennsylvania’s 13 other casinos have gradually been lifted in recent weeks and months, and nearly all were removed by the state as of Monday. Some unusual aspects still remain — smokers must step outside, the casino still has employees wearing masks for now, some plexiglass dividers remain in place that didn’t exist before March 2020 — but overall, things are close to normal for operators and gamblers.

“I’m excited,” Hendricks said at the Fayette County property Tuesday afternoon. “Just seeing all the table games with all the chairs again, that’s a good feeling, like we’re finally getting back to normal.”

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At the same time, nearly all of the property’s 600 slot machines are back in operation again, after half were disabled last summer. The high limits slots section had been used for storage of 300 chairs taken from the slots due to the 50% capacity limits that were imposed by the state. This week, 100% capacity was restored after a period when 75% was the maximum.

Among other changes affecting casinos statewide, in mid-May they were no longer required to enforce a mandate that patrons wear masks. It’s optional now at most casinos. And on April 4, alcohol service was allowed again on casino floors.

Such modifications have the atmosphere in casinos a lot closer to resembling the past than at any time since March 2020, when the pandemic triggered shutdowns that ended up putting Lady Luck and other casinos in the dark for approximately four months total. When reopened, they lacked some of that upbeat, partying atmosphere the industry depends on to attract customers.

It’s nice to see people’s faces again

Among those enjoying the lighter surroundings at Lady Luck Tuesday was 86-year-old widow Dolores Yurkovic, a slots player who quit wearing a mask on her visits as soon as the requirement for patrons was dropped nearly three weeks ago. She has been fully vaccinated for COVID-19.

“When the masks came off, everybody was just so happy,” she said during a pause before heading to her favorite Dragon Link machine. “Now you can see people’s faces. Everyone looked like they were so grumpy behind the masks. It’s so much more pleasant now.”

Yurkovic is more elderly than most casino customers, but little Lady Luck, tucked far from population centers, does skew toward an older demographic, Hendricks said. Yurkovic likes that she feels safe there in the smaller, quieter environment than other casinos, and many of the staff know her name, as she does theirs. It is on the property of Nemacolin Woodlands Resort, about a 90-minute drive to the southeast from Pittsburgh, while Churchill Downs Inc. operates the casino under a management agreement with Nemacolin.

Lady Luck prides itself on a family-style, customer-friendly atmosphere, without as much noise and bustle as bigger venues containing live entertainment and other attractions. It is the only casino in the state with neither a poker room nor sportsbook.

Lacking those amenities meant less impact from COVID in some ways for Lady Luck, in that it had fewer customer-drawing attractions that needed to be shut down, with no buffet, concerts, or banquets there to start with.

But the facility’s revenue has slumped from the pre-COVID era more than other casinos in the state for various reasons. In April, its gaming revenue was off more than 11% from April 2019, compared to 9% statewide among casinos open in both periods. The gap has been wider in some other months.

“A lot of our clientele is in an older demographic that has been more cautious about getting out” into large social settings, said John Bane, the casino’s executive host, who gets to know customers closely. He also said the temporary ban on indoor smoking imposed by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has kept away some patrons whom Bane knows customarily enjoy being there, as casinos are one of the few indoor public settings where they are allowed to light up.

Besides those issues, Lady Luck has had a new competitor since November in an adjacent county, the Live! facility at Westmoreland Mall, which Hendricks said has been taking away some patrons as well as employees. Though the newcomer is labeled a mini-casino, it actually has 150 more slot machines and more other amenities than Lady Luck, which is in Pennsylvania’s resort casino category.

Some COVID-related changes will continue

Like other casinos, Lady Luck cut back substantially on marketing promotions over the past year — crowds would have caused concerns about capacity limits — but it is resuming them this month.

Also similar to competitors, it has encountered hiring difficulties in trying to rebuild its staff. Hendricks said the property deliberately has 30 employees on furlough in the food and beverage and valet parking departments until patron volume increases — customers have to order their drinks at the bar, as no beverage servers are circulating on the gaming floor — but Lady Luck has been challenged to fill staff openings for security and surveillance and some other positions.

So it will be trying some unprecedented techniques, such as rewarding patrons with free play if they are credited for referring a new employee to the casino, and sending a shuttle bus into nearby Uniontown as a mobile interview site for prospective employees.

Some aspects of the COVID casino era will continue because they are beneficial, Hendricks said, such as the widespread prevalence of hand sanitizer dispensers and extra cleaning of chips, machines, and other parts of the casino. A self-serve soft drink machine, meanwhile, is being updated to fill drinks by use of non-touch sensors rather than patrons pressing buttons.

Such modern health and hygiene changes are part of a new normal that will be the case in many casinos in addition to Lady Luck.

But all of the stickers on the floor that instructed people where to stand so as to be safely six feet apart? Those are gone. The plexiglass that interfered with easy social interaction and sometimes created lighting glares? Mostly gone. The restriction that you could only consume alcohol while sitting down with a meal? Gone.

And then there’s that return to normalcy that put a smile on Hendricks’ face — behind a mask he hopes may only be needed for a few more weeks — as much as anything: seeing all the chairs back. It means no more waiting lists will be required on weekends for those who want to play blackjack and can’t get a seat, which was just one more costly hindrance to the casino’s bottom line in recent months.

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