There was a sense of déjà vu for Andre Barnabei, the Pittsburgh Rivers Casino’s vice president of gaming, as he sat in its sportsbook late Monday surveying the masked slot machine players nearby.
Monday marked the third time the casino had reopened since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, requiring the type of off-again, on-again process that had been unheard of in the 24/7 casino industry before 2020. In addition to closing from March 15-June 8 in a period of widespread casino shutdowns statewide and nationally, the casino was also dark July 3-9 due to a county order.
“It’s one thing you don’t want to say, but we’ve kind of become efficient at opening and closing,” Barnabei said in the midst of hours spent welcoming back employees and guests for the first time since Dec. 12.
That was the day on which a widespread COVID containment order by Gov. Tom Wolf took effect to shut down not just the state’s casino industry but indoor dining, gyms, theaters, high school sports, and other public activities.
Most of the state’s 13 casinos reopened Monday on the first day day they were permitted, with Presque Isle Downs & Casino opting to wait until Tuesday and Lady Luck Nemacolin to restart Friday. Getting back in business as they were on Dec. 11 doesn’t mean things are back to normal, however, as various health and safety restrictions are still in place and many of their restaurants or other aspects continue on hiatus.
Rivers Pittsburgh would have missed about $600,000 in slots and table games revenue daily during the shutdown, based on its November performance, and there was no hesitancy about resuming as soon as possible at 8 a.m. for the benefit of it, its 1,000-some employees, and its patrons.
“For a Monday, I was very happy with our business today, especially with lots of people that still don’t realize we’re open,” Barnabei said.
Limits on occupancy, smoking, alcohol continue
Rivers and other casinos in the state, while reopen, continue to be under multiple restrictions that affect revenue: 50% maximum occupancy; no indoor smoking; alcohol is only served with meals; no concerts or events to attract crowds.
Those operating restrictions combined with some four months of combined closure will result in about $1 billion less in slots revenue from the industry in 2020 compared to 2019’s $2.36 billion, and about $400 million less in table games than 2019’s $903.6 million.
Fortunately for operators and government tax revenue, Pennsylvania online casino play and sports betting have helped make up the lost income. The brick-and-mortar casinos would still like to get back to a place where they see normal customer traffic, but there’s no telling when that will be.
“No one has that crystal ball, right?” Barnabei mused. “We certainly have had lots of discussion around what we think could happen, but we don’t know. We’re all very excited about vaccines coming out and that it seems to be socially acceptable to take vaccines, and we look forward to that day when we’re in an environment where masks don’t have to be worn. … We hope that’s in the not-too-distant future.”
He said the smoking and alcohol restrictions that began over the summer have an impact, but it’s hard to measure exactly how much. Revenue of the casinos in western Pennsylvania like Rivers have also slumped more than those in the eastern part of the state, and Barnabei wasn’t sure of any explanation for that. New cost efficiencies put in place have helped the casino compensate for lost income, he said.
“We always want to do better, but we also recognize that we have a lot of social responsibility, and we’ve cut back on a lot of our promotions,” Barnabei said. “We try to make sure we’re being good partners in social distancing, and that does impact people. We have an events center upstairs for which we’ve cut back on concerts and events that are things that normally help [attract customers].”
Live poker is back some places, at least
One difference for Rivers and other casinos in reopening this time from their experience doing so in June is that while certain amenities such as buffets and valet parking continue to be banned, poker is permissible.
So Rivers and its sister Rivers Philadelphia casino, Parx, Mohegan Sun Pocono, and Mount Airy Casino Resort are all operating poker rooms, though in more limited fashion than pre-COVID. Other casinos are either waiting to reopen poker rooms or even, in the case of Meadows Racetrack & Casino, reopened the room when allowed in the fall but have closed it again now.
The game has a different look and feel at the casinos, reduced to seven seats of masked players separated by abundant Plexiglas from one another and the dealer, with a reduced number of tables for physical distancing.
At one point Monday evening, Rivers had six games going while Parx had 18, Rivers Philadelphia five, Mount Airy three, and Mohegan Sun two.
“Nothing’s normal anymore, but it’s been very well-received and we were just getting into the groove” after reopening the room in November weeks before the latest state shutdown, Barnabei said. “We started to see a lot of our regular poker players come back, and they had a lot of compliments for us on the way we set up the shields.”
In the sportsbook where he was sitting, half of the chairs were covered over to keep people distanced and half of the tables were removed. But Barnabei expects the place to be filled from Saturday afternoon to Monday night with pro and college football fans watching playoff games.
That would be one sign of things getting back to normal in a new year that he and his peers around the state hope months from now will be very different from the last.
“We’re happy to be open, first and foremost, and continuing to bring money into the state and continuing to employ the team members,” Barnabei said.