A Return To Normalcy, But On No Set Date, Is In Sight For PA Casinos And Tracks

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Pennsylvania officials have provided the first authorization for casinos and racetracks to begin reopening, but no specifics were yet being offered Monday morning on when that will occur.

Gov. Tom Wolf issued two separate messages late last week that kicked off plans to reopen facilities that have been shut down since mid-March. They won’t open immediately, however, and casinos and horse tracks in some parts of the state will resume ahead of others.

Friday is the earliest three casinos could reopen

On Friday, Wolf announced 16 new counties, on top of 18 more rural ones previously, will move on June 5 into the state’s “green” phase of COVID-19 protocols that enable many normal business operations to resume.

Those new counties include Allegheny, which hosts Pittsburgh’s Rivers Casino; Washington County, with its Meadows Racetrack & Casino; and Fayette County, home to the much smaller Lady Luck Nemacolin resort casino.

The green phase allows all entertainment, “such as casinos, theaters, and shopping malls,” to open at 50% capacity. The state’s nine other casinos will remain on June 5 in yellow or red counties, where casinos are among enterprises that cannot operate.

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But just because the three casinos in southwestern Pennsylvania could potentially reopen Friday doesn’t mean they will.

In fact, Rivers spokesman Jack Horner said over the weekend that the Pittsburgh casino, the largest of the three, would not start taking customers Friday. More details about reopening would be provided “as soon as that information is available,” he said, and the casino’s website Monday morning offered nothing to indicate anything is imminent.

It was not much different for the Meadows, although a statement from spokesman Jeff Morris did not specifically rule out Friday.

“We continue to work closely with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and state and local leaders to finalize comprehensive plans for the reopening of The Meadows,” he said in an email. “We look forward to sharing our property-specific health and safety protocols once they’ve received final approval from the board.”

Regulators need to review plans and monitor tests

Doug Harbach, a spokesman for the gaming board, explained that the casinos cannot resume operations without the agency reviewing and approving their individual health and safety plan designed to protect both customers and employees from the coronavirus.

The casinos’ procedures for gaming, accounting, and other operations must also be retested under state monitoring after the unprecedented 11-week shutdown of the gaming facilities.

“It is not yet possible to establish a reopening date when the public will be welcomed back at any of these casinos,” Harbach said. “While we hope the reopening timetable becomes clearer in the days ahead, it is important to note that the casinos fully understand how important it is to ensure the safety of everyone that comes into their facility so that their experience is positive.”

Although most casinos in the country remain closed, states are gradually lifting their suspensions, and it has been customary in places such as Louisiana and Mississippi for the gaming halls to begin seeing customers and collecting revenue at the first possible opportunity. As of Monday morning, 316 casinos were open and 673 remained closed, according to the American Gaming Association.

The Pennsylvania gaming board last month issued a set of minimum guidelines for casinos, which include masks being worn by all customers and employees. The casinos will have to spell out just how they will ensure safe social distancing is maintained among players at slot machines and table games, although they will have some individual flexibility in how they do that.

Racetracks are likely a week or more away

Like the casinos, the state’s six thoroughbred and harness tracks have been shut down by state order since mid-March, and the horse industry has been pressing for weeks for permission to resume racing without spectators present. Legislation moved out of committee to the floor of the state House last week, in fact, proposed requiring Gov. Wolf to lift the existing racing ban.

Wolf tentatively acceded to the request by Thursday, including the tracks in a message that stated professional sports could resume in the state so long as no fans were present.

However, the specifics of resuming such activities are still subject to review by state officials. In a teleconference call Thursday of administration officials and representatives of the racing industry, it was agreed that the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission would submit a COVID-19 plan at the start of this week to the Pennsylvania Department of Health detailing how workers at the tracks would be protected.

Todd Mostoller, executive director of the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, said the plan being submitted incorporates the safeguards in use at other tracks across the country that have been operating safely since March.

“We’re not reinventing the wheel,” he said.

He suggested it would be a matter of weeks rather than days, however, for racing to resume once approval is received from state health officials. Tracks have to call back furloughed employees and undertake a number of other racing-related steps.

Mostoller said that for Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie County, where his association oversees racing, the earliest racing is expected to resume is July 6, after reopening the stable area as early as June 15 if approvals go as expected.

Horses have been stabled and cared for all through the shutdown at three tracks with substantial backside operations — the Meadows, Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course, and Parx — so it is possible they will have a head start on other tracks.

Kim Hankins, executive director of the Meadows Standardbred Owners Association, said 70% to 80% of the horses that would be competing in racing at the Washington County track are already on the grounds. A slate of qualifying races would be needed before official competition begins, but he believes it’s conceivable several race days could be scheduled next week if health officials approve the arrangements within the next few days.

“There’s at least a road map to follow now to get open, which is good news for everybody,” Pete Peterson, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Equine Coalition, told Penn Bets.

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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