COVID-19 has managed to do something that anti-tobacco forces in Pennsylvania have been unable to achieve for years: It has cleared the state’s casinos of smoking.
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board issued an order Friday instructing casinos that due to coronavirus-related health and safety concerns, they should prohibit smoking on their gaming floors.
State law since casinos were first allowed in Pennsylvania has permitted them to allow smoking in up to 50% of the facility, as an exception to a prohibition in most public spaces. Repeated legislative efforts to repeal the exception have failed to muster support for passage.
By Monday morning, most websites of the 10 operating casinos had information advising the public of the new restriction, noting smoking would be permissible in designated areas adjacent to the casino floor or in an outdoor area nearby.
Initial COVID guidelines allowed smoking
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board in May issued a set of minimum standards for COVID-19 prevention that casinos would be expected to meet before they could reopen, but the guidelines contained no reference to smoking or any restriction on it.
As casinos gradually reopened between June 9 and 29 — permitted to do so as their counties moved into the state’s color-coded “green phase” of allowable business activities — smoking continued in most venues as in the past.
Patrons were all required to have masks, but they generally pulled them down when smoking, just as for eating or drinking. Table games had restrictions on smoking, however, due to proximity of players to one another and dealers.
While much is still to be studied and proven about the risk for COVID-19, health experts have suggested that due to the respiratory nature of the virus, smokers are at greater risk of contracting it and of suffering more harmful effects from it. At the same time, the possibility exists for droplets containing the virus to be shared by secondhand smoke, though it’s not certain how likely that is.
The first exception to Pennsylvania casinos’ traditional smoking habits came at Wind Creek Bethlehem, which informed guests prior to reopening June 29 that smokers would have to use designated areas in its parking lot. It was part of a company-wide policy by Wind Creek, which operates multiple casinos across the country.
“We were advised that smoke particles could provide a transmission vector for [coronavirus] particles, so in an abundance of caution, decided it would be best for all to provide a smoking area away from the main area that people would be spending their time,” Jay Dorris, Wind Creek’s CEO, said in a statement to Penn Bets.
“We’ve seen some comments from smokers that they will go somewhere else. But we’ve also had many positive comments and thanks for taking this step.”
Several days after its own reopening, Parx Casino also voluntarily announced its own “temporary” smoking ban that took effect Thursday. It set up outdoor smoking patios that patrons could easily reach.
State’s public mask mandate was the trigger
Doug Harbach, spokesman for the state gaming board, said the new smoking policy came about as a result of a general Pennsylvania Department of Health directive last week spelling out individuals should wear masks in all public places.
“In reading that order, it became evident that there were very few exceptions to where a mask must be worn and that there was no exception to pulling down the mask in order to smoke,” Harbach said in an email.
“As a result, the Gaming Control Board executive director communicated with all of the casinos and, while recognizing that some casinos had already decided to have a complete smoking ban, informed them that he saw the Health Department order regarding masks to therefore require that there be no indoor smoking at their facilities.”
Harbach said the ban is “temporary for the purpose of minimizing as best as possible any risk of the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.”
The Pennsylvania restriction comes on the heels of New Jersey’s casinos reopening in recent days with a new smoking ban imposed on them by Gov. Phil Murphy. The Atlantic City casinos normally operate under a provision allowing smoking on up to 25% of the casino floor.
As an example of the continuing debate over whether casinos should remain one of the few indoor places smokers can count on lighting up, the Meadows Racetrack & Casino’s Facebook page received comments from both sides after it announced Friday night that smokers would be pushed outdoors.
Several thanked the casino, with one stating, “We stayed away more often than not due to the overwhelming cigarette smell. … Now that it’s non smoking, you’ll definitely be getting MORE of our business.”
But another who visits the Meadows posted on July 4: “I think it’s funny that I (a smoker) find out about this on the one day of the year that I’m supposed to be celebrating my freedom.”
Rivers Casinos both closed for time being
Smokers at two Pennsylvania casinos are not immediately affected, but only because they are closed.
The Rivers Philadelphia has no imminent reopening date because the city of Philadelphia has imposed its own limits on large gatherings, despite the state’s green phase allowing casinos elsewhere to reopen.
Its sister property, the Rivers Pittsburgh, became one of the few casinos in the country to already have been forced in the COVID era to close its doors once more after reopening.
Though the casino has reported three COVID cases among its employees since becoming the state’s first venue to reopen June 9, an Allegheny County Health Department order forcing its shutdown last Friday was not triggered by those.
Alarmed by a recent spike in coronavirus cases locally, thought to be connected most often to alcohol use, county officials ordered the casinos and all bars and restaurants to shut down for a week. Rivers Casino had already voluntarily decided to stop serving alcohol several days before the shutdown order.
The order suggests the Pittsburgh casino could reopen this Friday, but a Rivers spokesman declined on Monday to speculate on just when the Pittsburgh and Philadelphia casinos would be greeting customers again.
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