Half Of Pennsylvania’s Casinos Now Open, The Other Half Coming Soon

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[This article has been updated since its original posting.]

Gov. Tom Wolf has given Pennsylvania’s six closed casinos the green light to reopen as soon as Friday under the state’s color-coded COVID-19 business activity plan, and one is prepared to open its doors that quickly.

Harrah’s Philadelphia announced that it will open to the public for the first time since mid-March at 11 a.m. Friday, with its Caesars Reward Seven Star cardholders gaining access two hours earlier.

Parx Casino in Bucks County, the biggest revenue generator in the state, announced on its website it would reopen at 9 a.m. Monday, June 29. Wind Creek Bethlehem also put out a statement that it would reopen Monday, without specifying a time. Similar announcements were still awaited from other operators.

With Mohegan Sun Pocono and Mount Airy Casino Resort both having reopened Monday morning under prior approvals — with some operating restrictions — it means half the state’s casinos are back in business.

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The ones that remain closed for at least a few more days, aside from Parx, Harrah’s, and Wind Creek Bethlehem,  are Rivers Philadelphia, Valley Forge Casino Resort, and Presque Isle Downs & Casino.

With an announcement by the governor late last week that the counties those six reside in will change from yellow to green status this Friday, it opens the door for more return to normalcy — or something approaching it — soon for the state’s casino industry.

The one exception there is Rivers Philadelphia, whose sister property in Pittsburgh was the first to reopen on June 9. Philadelphia officials have imposed a local order, despite the governor’s green go-ahead, that will temporarily keep the casino and certain other large gathering spaces in the city closed until local COVID-19 cases sufficiently subside.

Hollywood Casino opened on first possible day

The state’s $3 billion-a-year gaming industry ground to a near-halt — online gambling being the only exception — in mid-March due to COVID-19 health concerns.

In phases, depending on the level of recent local coronavirus cases, casinos began reopening this month under restrictions that they not exceed 50% maximum operating capacity. Social distancing requirements limit the number of slot machines and table game seats available. Entertainment centers remain closed, as do many regular dining options, most particularly buffets.

While one might have expected casinos to greet customers again at the first possible moment to make up for lost revenue, only Penn National Gaming’s Hollywood Casino in suburban Harrisburg has done so. It reopened at 9 a.m. Friday to brisk business, with the first floor of its parking garage jammed after it closed off the spaces above, PennLive reported.

Mount Airy, Mohegan Sun, Rivers Pittsburgh, Meadows Racetrack & Casino, and Lady Luck Nemacolin all waited anywhere from three to seven days to welcome the public after they were first permitted to do so.

Casino officials have said it can take that much time to recall employees and provide them with new coronavirus-related health and safety training, in addition to properly restarting and testing machines and cleaning the facility.

Rivers Casino has had two COVID cases

The potential health peril in the new operating environment quickly became evident at the Pittsburgh Rivers Casino.

The casino reported Saturday that a second of its employees had tested positive for COVID-19, three days after a first had done so.

The second employee had not worked at the casino the past seven days, and had “self-identified symptoms, got tested, and sought treatment — without ever returning to the casino,” according to a Rivers Casino statement. It was not known if the individual contracted the virus through interactions at work or elsewhere.

But with the second such case since reopening June 9, though nothing was known about whether any guests had been affected who might have come into contact with the employees, it prompted Rivers on Saturday to begin taking temperature checks of everyone entering.

At entrances where security staff are always posted, with age requirements of visitors typically their top priority, a staff member now points a handheld temperature-reading device at the forehead of each individual before they are allowed inside.

“Individuals whose temperatures read above 100.4 degrees will not be permitted to access the gaming floor. Face coverings, social distancing, hand sanitizing, and other safety guidelines remain firmly in place,” the statement said.

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has set minimum health and safety standards related to COVID-19 for casinos, including mandatory face coverings for everyone, while leaving to each operator the decision of whether to widely check temperatures. A fever is one of the COVID-19 symptoms, although it does not necessarily mean someone has the virus.

Mohegan Sun and Lady Luck opted to do the temperature screening on all guests upon reopening, and Parx says it will also do so, while Rivers was among those declining initially to take that step.

Initial volume despite limits spurs rebound optimism

As the still-closed casinos prepare for reopening, their executives are no doubt looking with interest at the early experience of the state’s reopened casinos — just as those casinos’ managers had studied prior reopenings in other states.

When it comes to the bottom line, there’s apparently grounds for optimism.

“We had about 2½ times our normal Tuesday volume,” Bill Keena, general manager of Pittsburgh Rivers, told the Philadelphia Inquirer in a report on the casino’s first day back.

It’s not like he expects any doubling of revenue long term. Keena has stated that he expects the casino to get back quickly to about two-thirds of its pre-COVID operating revenue based on what he’s seen in other states, which would be plenty satisfactory considering reduced operating costs, whereas he originally was worried it wouldn’t meet half its former volume.

In rural Fayette County, the experience of little Lady Luck Nemacolin in its first week back was similarly encouraging.

“In the first five days we were ahead of prior year revenue,” even with half the slot machines turned off, said Gary Hendricks, the casino’s general manager.

“It surprised me a little bit,” he said, but he also knew that it’s rare for anywhere close to 100% of machines to be used when they’re widely available, thus limiting the impact of new restrictions.

“There’s lots of pent-up demand. I’m not sure how long it will last, but it’s very nice,” Hendricks said.

It will be mid-July before any official revenue figures come out from the state showing how the casinos performed in June — and that report will only cover partial days of the month and not every casino, since not every one will be open by June 30.

But after zero dollars were earned in retail gaming operations for the entire months of April and May, dealing a blow to state and local government tax coffers as well as the operators, it’s clear that things have bottomed out.

Photo provided by Shutterstock

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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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