The top-earning casino in Pennsylvania, Parx Casino in Bensalem, welcomed gamblers for the first time in 3½ months on Monday morning, opening its doors almost an hour earlier than it was scheduled to.
The hours of operation were to begin at 9 a.m., but patrons started showing up early and Parx started letting them in so they wouldn’t have to stand outside on a hot summer morning.
Of course, “letting them in” came with a few COVID-19-related hurdles. Customers entered one at a time, each wearing a facial covering as mandated, spread out at least six feet in line, with markers on the ground indicating where to stand. Once inside the glass doors, masks were removed for a couple of seconds while a machine checked temperatures; as long as the customer got a reading of under 100.4 degrees, it was on to the casino floor for something resembling the standard Parx experience, albeit in a more sterilized environment — both in terms of the cleanliness and the outward displays of gaming-floor enthusiasm.
“We know the critical thing is going to be following all the procedures,” Parx Chief Marketing Officer Marc Oppenheimer told Penn Bets. “As you see, we’re all wearing masks here. We have hand sanitizer all over the floor. We’re taking temperature checks of everyone that comes into the building, guest and employee.
“I know from watching people over the first hour coming in, guests are excited to be back. From a business perspective, I believe it’s going to be a matter of what percentage of the guests feel comfortable coming back out into a public environment like this even with all the procedures and precautions. If people are comfortable, they’ll come back and things should be good.”
A case of the Mondays
Along with Wind Creek Bethlehem, Parx reopened in a tie for 10th out of 12 PA casinos, with only Rivers Philadelphia (formerly SugarHouse) still awaiting clearance to resume business.
Six casinos are in counties that achieved Gov. Tom Wolf’s “green” designation earlier, while three reopened this past Friday, three days ahead of Parx.
“We had been planning for about three weeks to reopen,” Oppenheimer explained, “and initially we had been told that if [Bucks County] goes green on Friday, we’ll be able to open on Monday. That was the initial guidance we got. That changed within the week beforehand, but we had already made the decision to open on Monday.”
The slight delay gave Parx a little longer to make sure all measures were in accordance with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Among the adjustments:
- From Monday-Thursday, the casino is open from 9 a.m.-3 a.m. before closing for six hours “to allow for deep cleaning.” (From Friday-Sunday, the casino will be open 24/7.)
- Valet parking is not available and poker is not offered.
- Outside queues will be used if the casino reaches its maximum allowable capacity.
- Information sent to customers said “a security officer will greet and screen you and ask you to use hand sanitizer,” although on our Monday morning visit we did not find the sanitizer detail to be in effect.
- Masks are required (Parx provides them for customers who don’t bring their own), and those who refuse to wear masks will be denied entry.
- According to the release sent to customers, Parx has “increased the frequency of air filter replacement and HVAC system cleaning and maximized fresh air exchange.”
Divided we play
Once inside, the tweaks to comply with social distancing protocols are everywhere.
Some slot machines are turned off and others have no seats, forcing customers to play at least one machine apart from each other. Many slots also have plexiglass dividers between them.
Those dividers are extremely prominent at the table games, where a maximum of four players at a time can play blackjack and other card games, no more than three at a time can play roulette, and a max of six spots are available at each craps table.
The dealers are all wearing not only masks to cover their noses and mouths but clear face shields as well.
There are numerous sanitizing stations located about the casino floor, providing either liquid sanitizer or wipes. Some reopening-day customers took extra precautions, wearing their own rubber gloves as they gambled.
Food and drink aren’t as readily available as usual, and those bars and restaurants that have reopened all have limited hours.
The Parx faithful
None of those limitations mattered much to the hundreds of customers who arrived before 9 a.m. to get back in the action.
Penn Bets asked one 33-year-old female customer, who preferred to remain anonymous, why it was so important to her to be at Parx on the very first morning possible.
“Because I’ve been bored as hell stuck at home,” she said. “This is one of the few things in the area that you can go to as an adult and enjoy.
“To be honest with you, I’m over the masks and everything. If I’m going to get it [COVID], I’m going to get it. It is what it is. I think people have been too paranoid for too long.”
She said she’s just a penny slots player, so for her gambling at Parx is more about entertainment than about trying to win big money. “It’s about getting out of the house for a couple hours,” she said.
When we asked a group of patrons lining up near the entrance what brought them there ahead of the scheduled opening, several simultaneously answered, “Addiction.” Most said it with a laugh, but they were clearly only half-joking. One then noted, “I’m also just really excited to play and have fun.”
One local slots player, Nura O’Connell, clarified that the reason she and a companion were there was “because we miss gambling.” But when asked if the last three-plus months have been tough on her, O’Connell said, “Believe it or not, no, because we’ve been gambling online.” Pennsylvania is one of only three states that currently allows regulated online casino games, and Parx online casino has been operational since July 15, 2019.
Still, revenue has suffered throughout the state’s properties without the brick-and-mortar option, and Parx is happy to be back in action, even if capacity is somewhat limited and the receipts are unlikely to match pre-COVID numbers for a while.
“We really don’t know what the crowds are going to be like,” Parx CMO Oppenheimer said. “We are feeling good about some reports we’ve seen from other regional markets that have reopened before us, that are strong for their first week, two weeks. And those those that have been open longer are continuing to see some of that strength even four weeks or more into being reopened. So, we’re hopeful about that.”