A STATE AT PLAY

Illi­nois casi­nos an­gling to clean up now that their coro­n­avirus shut­down is over

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY MITCHELL ARMENTROUT, STAFF RE­PORTER mar­men­trout@sun­times.com | @mitchtrout

Imag­ine Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Si­na­tra sit­ting down for a hand of black­jack, with their trade­mark ban­ter muf­fled by sur­gi­cal masks — not to men­tion a plex­i­glass par­ti­tion sep­a­rat­ing all three.

Pass on the Rat Pack star power, take a hit of hand san­i­tizer, and you’ve got an idea of what a COVID-19 casino looks like.

Illi­nois gam­blers got their first glimpse of that Wed­nes­day as the state’s 10 casi­nos re­opened af­ter three months of an un­prece­dented statewide shut­down.

Hun­dreds of clear par­ti­tions sep­a­rated slot ma­chines, cash coun­ters and card deal­ers sprawled across the gam­ing floor of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, where some bet­tors were so ea­ger to get back to the ac­tion in the age of COVID-19 that they lined up be­fore it opened around 11 a.m.

The state’s most lu­cra­tive casino hadn’t taken in a chip since March 16, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s of­fice shut­tered the state’s gam­bling houses as well as the 36,000 slot ma­chines scat­tered across more than 7,000 bars, restau­rants and other es­tab­lish­ments.

But the virus wasn’t scar­ing off many from re­turn­ing to the bright lights and high-touch sur­faces on Wed­nes­day. Close to a thou­sand gam­blers were on Rivers’ main floor by mid­day, with around-the-clock clean­ing crews sweep­ing through and hand san­i­tiz­ing sta­tions set up through­out the build­ing.

That’s al­most half the casino’s reg­u­lar ca­pac­ity, the at­ten­dance cap set un­der Illi­nois Gam­ing Board re­open­ing guide­lines to pro­mote so­cial dis­tanc­ing.

“Va­ca­tions are kind of out the win­dow this sum­mer with ev­ery­thing go­ing on, so is my ‘stay­ca­tion,’ ” said McHenry bet­tor Anna Bren­ton, who ar­rived to play the slots shortly af­ter the doors opened. “It’s the first fun thing I’ve prob­a­bly done out­side the house in three months.”

Gam­ing Board pro­to­col re­quires work­ers and gam­blers to wear masks. Casi­nos must pro­vide free per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment and daily health screen­ings to em­ploy­ees, post sig­nage re­mind­ing gam­blers about so­cial dis­tanc­ing and “proper hand wash­ing,” and reg­u­larly dis­in­fect all gam­ing equip­ment in­clud­ing dice, chips, cards and roulette wheels.

At Rivers’ ta­bles, that means a spritz of hand san­i­tizer for both worker and wa­gerer when­ever cash or chips change hands. On top of those base­line re­quire­ments, Rivers in­stalled the plex­i­glass di­viders, which you won’t find at North­west In­di­ana casi­nos that re­opened two weeks ago.

“We’re try­ing to be a leader in keep­ing peo­ple safe. The last thing we want is to have to close again,” Rivers gen­eral man­ager Corey Wise said.

He ex­pects a so­cially dis­tant line to form out­side the casino this week­end as it bumps up against its 50% ca­pac­ity limit.

That’s mu­sic to the ears of an in­dus­try ground to a halt, and a pan­demic-stricken state that’s starved for cash. Gam­blers lost about $470 mil­lion at Illi­nois casi­nos and al­most $587 mil­lion at other video slots from March through June last year, gen­er­at­ing more than a quar­ter of a bil­lion dol­lars in state tax rev­enue — money al­most com­pletely lost this year.

And close to 5,000 casino work­ers across the state are mak­ing their way back to work. About 1,200 Rivers em­ploy­ees were back from fur­lough Wed­nes­day, and the casino ex­pects to even­tu­ally get back to its nor­mal staffing level of around 1,400.

While the mid-pan­demic re­open­ing had a cel­e­bra­tory air, it cer­tainly wasn’t the kind the state’s Demo­cratic gov­er­nor might’ve en­vi­sioned a year ago when he signed Illi­nois’ land­mark gam­ing over­haul into law.

The casi­nos’ un­prece­dented coro­n­avirus shut­down ended a year to the day af­ter Pritzker’s mas­sive ex­pan­sion went into ef­fect, in­tro­duc­ing sports bet­ting, casino games at race­tracks, ex­panded video gam­bling out­side casi­nos and six brand new casino li­censes that have yet to be doled out.

The crown jewel of that leg­is­la­tion, a long­sought Chicago mega-casino, is still many months or even years from com­ing to fruition, but it took a ma­jor step for­ward this week as the gov­er­nor signed a bill low­er­ing the ef­fec­tive tax rate for that po­ten­tial fu­ture cash cow. An in­dus­try con­sul­tant last sum­mer ruled the Chicago gam­bling tax struc­ture too high to lure any po­ten­tial de­vel­oper, send­ing Mayor Lori Light­foot’s team back to the ta­ble in Spring­field ear­lier this spring to win a more palat­able tax sched­ule.

Pritzker’s sig­na­ture on Tues­day sealed a win for Light­foot that had eluded a gen­er­a­tion of Chicago may­ors, but it’ll still be a long time be­fore a big-city casino opens its doors. A de­ci­sion on where to break ground has al­ready stirred con­tro­versy, not to men­tion what pri­vate com­pany might bid to op­er­ate a gam­bling house that’s ex­pected to gen­er­ate up­wards of $1 bil­lion an­nu­ally.

ASH­LEE REZIN GAR­CIA/SUN-TIMES

Se­cu­rity guards sta­tioned at the front doors ask guests a se­ries of ques­tions and en­force face mask re­quire­ments at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines on Wed­nes­day, the first day of re­open­ing fol­low­ing an un­prece­dented three-month shut­down due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

PRO­VIDED

Plex­i­glass par­ti­tions are set up to sep­a­rate deal­ers from play­ers at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

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