Half of the nation’s casinos reopened by Friday, some with mandatory temperature checks of everyone entering and some with verbal questioning of patrons to address COVID-19 risks.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board’s standards covering coronavirus protocols are more flexible, and when Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino reopens Tuesday for the first time in nearly three months, the hope is customers will employ sufficient common sense to protect themselves and others.
General Manager Bill Keena said information posted at every entrance will advise guests of the signs of COVID-19 infection and the ways they could be at risk for it, such as recent exposure to someone with the virus.
But there will be no temperature checks or questioning of everyone entering, though all inside the casino will be required to wear masks and expected to maintain social distancing six feet apart.
“People are going to have to take a little responsibility for themselves,” Keena said. “Let’s be realistic. If someone wants to come in and doesn’t care if they have COVID, they’re not going to say ‘yes’ to any [questions]. It’s all an honor system anyway. … At some point you’ve got to trust humans to do the right thing.”
Rivers is one of three to reopen next week
Keena answered questions by phone amid extensive preparations this week to reopen the casino at 9 a.m. Tuesday. It has been closed for the first time in its 10-year history, having shut the doors March 15 just ahead of a statewide order indefinitely suspending operations at all 12 Pennsylvania casinos.
Rivers is one of three in the southwest to receive approval to reopen, based on their home counties newly entering the state’s “green” phase of a color-coded system guiding allowable business activities.
No dates are yet set for reopening of the state’s nine other casinos, whose counties have yet to reach the green phase.
Rivers, one of two Pennsylvania casinos owned by Chicago-based Rush Street Gaming, could have opened as soon as today. It is waiting four days later, even though it is sacrificing more than $1 million daily in lost slots and table games revenue, based on past earnings.
The casino received notice a week ago of the green light to resume operations, and Keena said it would have been unwise to reopen immediately based on the time needed to clean and rearrange the property; install new plexiglass and signage; test and restart machines; recall employees; and train them on new health and safety procedures.
“Unlike a lot of smaller businesses, you can’t just turn a switch on three-days notice to fire this thing back up,” the GM said.
The property with some 2,600 slot machines and 1,700 employees earned $392 million in gaming revenue last year, fourth most in the state. Missing 85 days of operation due to the shutdown will cost it at least $90 million in revenue based on past experience, and perhaps well more than that, as it was experiencing double-digit revenue growth early this year before the pandemic hit.
“That’s lost money – you’re not going to make that up,” Keena said. “I’m not going to go in and raise prices … or tighten the slot machines.”
Fifty percent restriction not that big a deal
One of the many restrictions upon reopening is the casino cannot exceed 50% of its normal maximum capacity.
To help meet that requirement and maintain the proper social distancing on the gaming floor, chairs will be available at only 1,480 slot machines, and table games will be restricted to three players for blackjack, four for roulette, and six for craps.
Only some restaurants will be open, with their tables and chairs spread farther apart, and the poker room will remain closed indefinitely by state order, with some blackjack tables moved into it. There will be no live entertainment or other group events, as well as no valet parking.
Keena said the 50% restriction — which will cap the number of individuals on the gaming floor at about 4,000 — is not a major impediment, as the property rarely exceeded that anyway.
And despite the various limits, he said he’s actually optimistic about the casino’s ability to make money. That’s based on early indications from other properties that have reopened around the country.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand,” Keena said. “If you’d asked me a month ago, I’d say I wasn’t sure, that we might just operate at 30% of [normal] business levels. Now I think we’ll come back at 65 to 70%. That’s based on looking at what’s happened with other casinos, and we were already such a popular destination.”
Casino is no longer a 24/7 operation
Rivers will reduce its costs by spending less on labor, as it is initially calling back just over half the workforce. It also has the option of cutting back its spending on marketing and promotions, as some financial analysts have predicted casinos will do, although Keena declined to discuss the strategy for that.
At the same time, he said Rivers has incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in new costs for additions such as 140 dispensers of sanitary soap and wipes; widespread installation of plexiglass dividers; all of the new signage; and supplies such as masks for all employees and plastic face shields for those who want them.
One way it will save money is with the unusual step — for a casino — of emptying out from 4 a.m. to 9 a.m. on weekdays. The property will be undergoing “deep cleaning” during those time periods Monday morning through Friday morning, with no guests present, and then operating 24/7 on the weekends.
“We looked at our past operating hours, and that’s the slowest time of business,” Keena said.
Decisions such as altering those curtailed hours and whether to recall additional employees will be based on the volume of business activity in the days after reopening.
Keena, a longtime industry veteran in Nevada and other states who has been in charge of Rivers since 2018, is just glad to have such decisions to make. When shutting down March 15, he had no idea when he’d be able to make them again, and he wasn’t optimistic.
“With the amount of media attention [COVID] was getting back then, I thought to be quite frank this would have gone on longer,” he said of the shutdown. “I’m very happy.”
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