PA Casinos’ Future: Lots Of Masks And Sanitizer, But No Poker Or Valets

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When casinos reopen in Pennsylvania at a still-to-be-determined date, expect lots of masks, sanitary wipes, and plexiglass but no live poker or valet parking.

Such conditions upon the return of casino gambling were announced by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board Wednesday morning in the form of its “COVID-19 Casino Reopening Protocols.”

The minimum requirements detailed in 10 pages were posted on the board’s website, sent to the 12 casinos, and described by Executive Director Kevin O’Toole at Wednesday’s board meeting.

“While these guidelines for casino operations will be subject to amendment as we move closer to a time of reopening, we believe this plan will be effective in mitigating and reducing the risk of exposure to COVID-19 for all employees, patrons, and other guests,” O’Toole said.

Casinos await undetermined green light

The casinos have been closed like other entertainment centers in the state since mid-March as part of efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus. It is anticipated they will only reopen when Gov. Tom Wolf announces the region they are in has advanced to a “green” phase determined by reduction in COVID-19 risks, instead of the red and yellow phases now declared around the state.

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While most casinos around the country remain closed, some have reopened in the past week. They are using either voluntary or government-mandated guidelines designed to reduce the risk from the highly contagious disease when hundreds of individuals gather in one location.

The Pennsylvania board’s minimum protocols do not include some steps taken or planned elsewhere, such as a specified 50% occupancy limit, maximum number of players at a table, or mandatory temperature checks of those entering the facility.

Among requirements on the list

The casinos are welcome to adopt such measures themselves in submitting individual plans to the board, but at the very least, the following will be expected:

  • All patrons and employees shall wear masks at all times. For identification purposes, patrons “should be discouraged from wearing a hat in the casino.”
  • There should be widespread placement of hand sanitizer and floor markings to maintain 6 feet of distance between patrons.
  • Casino staff at entrances should have training in recognizing possible illness among guests and asking them if they have had recent fevers or contact with those connected to COVID-19. “An affirmative answer to any of these questions shall result in refusing admittance to the casino on that day.”
  • Slot machine areas should be cleaned regularly, have wipes available for players, and have safety measures in the form of either shutting down a number of machines, removing chairs from them, or installing plexiglass between machines.
  • Table games “shall be operated in a manner to maintain increased distance between players at each table,” and there should be a plan for regularly sanitizing cards, dice, chips, and other surfaces.
  • Poker rooms won’t reopen initially “due to players handling cards and chips.” Reconsideration will be given based upon guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Pennsylvania Department of Health.
  • Sportsbooks should keep patrons 6 feet apart, frequently sanitize kiosks and counters, and consider plexiglass barriers in front of ticket writers, as will be required at cashier and players club windows.
  • Valet services “should be discontinued until revised guidance is received.”

Temporary closures for cleaning are possible

The COVID-19 protocol list comes after weeks of discussion between the board’s staff and casino operators about their individual plans.

One casino, Wind Creek Bethlehem, has even announced on its website an unusual reservation system that will be created for patrons to use if they want to be assured entrance to the casino upon reopening. The casino wants to avoid crowds that make safe social distancing difficult, and it also plans to shut down at different times during the day for intensive cleaning.

The board’s guidelines do not state anything about a reservation system, but they address temporary closure: “Casinos may close to the public during limited scheduled hours upon notice to the Board’s Bureau of Casino Compliance for the purpose of conducting a thorough or deep cleaning of the casino facility.” Sections of the casino may also be shut down for cleaning while the full facility remains open.

A number of specific guidelines also relate to employee areas of the facility, ensuring they avoid close contact with one another or avoid the workplace if they are feeling ill.

O’Toole said the guidelines will be adjusted, as need be, during ongoing conversations with the casinos and health officials.

Don’t expect any casino visits this month

O’Toole told Penn Bets in a recent interview that it is likely different casinos will open at different times, based on the prevalence of COVID-19 cases in their communities.

It seems unlikely any of that will occur in May. As to casinos being approved to restart in June, it’s too early to say, though those in the western part of the state could reopen before ones in the east, based on coronavirus cases and deaths thus far.

In the meantime, the shutdown of the industry has prevented the casinos from generating some $275 million in monthly revenue from slots and table games, and state and local governments are sacrificing the roughly 40% share of that they would derive in taxes.

Looking ahead, O’Toole said, “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 have developed.”

Unlike most states, Pennsylvania does at least have online casino games that have continued, and in fact thrived, during the shutdown of land-based casinos. Those 10 iCasino sites generated $43.1 million in revenue in April, a 73.1% increase over March.

Image 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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