1st casino poker rooms re­open

Mount Airy, Mo­he­gan Sun wel­come back card play­ers; no date set for Wind Creek Beth­le­hem

The Morning Call - - Front Page - By Jon Har­ris The Morn­ing Call

As Penn­syl­va­nia’s casi­nos re­opened in June and July, poker rooms stayed quiet, not au­tho­rized to op­er­ate un­der pro­to­cols is­sued by the Penn­syl­va­nia Gam­ing Con­trol Board be­cause of the game’s con­stant han­dling of cards and chips.

The cards, and the chips, are back on the ta­ble now.

Mount Airy Casino Re­sort in Mon­roe County and Mo­he­gan Sun Po­cono in Luzerne County re­opened their poker rooms at noon Fri­day, the state’s first two phys­i­cal poker rooms to re­open.

Penn Na­tional Gam­ing plans to re­open the poker room at Mead­ows Race­track & Casino in western Penn­syl­va­nia next Fri­day but doesn’t yet have a date for its Hol­ly­wood Casino in Dauphin County, said Jeff Mor­ris, the com­pany’s vice pres­i­dent of pub­lic af­fairs and gov­ern­ment re­la­tions.

Many of state’s other casi­nos are keep­ing their cards close to the vest, not yet an­nounc­ing a re­open­ing date for poker. Wind Creek Beth­le­hem had no up­dates Thurs­day on when its 26-ta­ble poker room will re­open, spokesper­son Ju­lia Cor­win said. Mean­while, Har­rah’s Philadel­phia de­cided to per­ma­nently close its poker room and did not re­spond to an in­quiry seek­ing com­ment.

The first cou­ple of re­open­ings

come af­ter the Gam­ing Con­trol Board sent a let­ter to casi­nos last month, re­quest­ing poker room plans with ten­ta­tive re­open­ing dates no ear­lier than Oct. 16 be sub­mit­ted for re­view, board spokesper­son Doug Har­bach said. The plans needed to meet sev­eral safety re­quire­ments, such as hav­ing translu­cent di­viders to sep­a­rate guests and deal­ers. Each poker ta­ble can have no more than seven play­ers, plus the dealer.

In ad­di­tion, pro­to­cols and a sched­ule must be es­tab­lished for clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing the di­viders, the poker chips and cards.

Guests also are per­mit­ted to wear translu­cent gloves dur­ing play. No food is al­lowed.

Poker also is due to re­turn in neigh­bor­ing New Jersey, where the Bor­gata Ho­tel Casino & Spa in At­lantic City an­nounced Thurs­day that its poker room — with 30 so­cially dis­tanced ta­bles — will re­open at 10 a.m. Wed­nes­day.

The re­turn of casino poker rooms comes af­ter Penn­syl­va­nia Health Sec­re­tary Dr. Rachel Levine said Wed­nes­day the state was see­ing a “fall resur­gence” of the coro­n­avirus. But, she said, Penn­syl­va­nia has no plans to change mit­i­ga­tion or­ders al­ready in place, see­ing it­self as bet­ter pre­pared to han­dle an in­crease in cases than it was when the pan­demic hit in March and led to wide­spread shut­down or­ders.

The casino in­dus­try has been ham­mered by the pan­demic, which at one point forced the tem­po­rary clo­sure of all 989 com­mer­cial and tribal casino prop­er­ties across the coun­try. Wind Creek Beth­le­hem re­opened in late June at less than the per­mit­ted 50% oc­cu­pancy and last month an­nounced it was lay­ing off 20% of its em­ploy­ees amid sig­nif­i­cantly lower busi­ness vol­umes. The Beth­le­hem prop­erty now em­ploys about 1,600 peo­ple, Cor­win said. The casino is con­tin­u­ing to work on pre­vi­ously an­nounced ini­tia­tives, such as open­ing its sports­book in late Novem­ber, she added.

The pan­demic is forc­ing casino op­er­a­tors to adapt and likely push­ing them to be­come more ef­fi­cient and care­ful in how they spend mar­ket­ing dol­lars, said Michael Pol­lock, man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Spec­trum Gam­ing Group, a con­sult­ing firm in Hor­sham.

Al­ready, he has ob­served, casi­nos are fo­cus­ing more of their mar­ket­ing ef­forts on core pa­trons, get­ting more money out of higher-end cus­tomers. In ad­di­tion, he said casi­nos’ bot­tom lines aren’t suf­fer­ing as much as the top lines, in­di­cat­ing op­er­a­tors are get­ting by with fewer em­ploy­ees and lower ex­penses.

The last two Gam­ing Con­trol Board an­nual re­ports show the drop in em­ploy­ment amid the pan­demic. As of June 30, there were about 10,700 em­ploy­ees across the state’s 12 casi­nos — a year ear­lier, that num­ber was more than 16,700.

Mean­while, dur­ing a pan­demic that kept some casi­nos idle for more than 100 days, on­line gam­bling has boomed, some­thing not ex­pected to go away any­time soon. Casino games of­fered on­line in Penn­syl­va­nia brought in rev­enue of more than $57 mil­lion in Septem­ber, com­pared with $4.1 mil­lion a year ear­lier, when only a hand­ful of on­line gam­bling op­er­a­tions were live in the state.

That to­tal helped Penn­syl­va­nia see a year-over-year gain in to­tal gam­bling rev­enue in Septem­ber, mak­ing up for de­clin­ing rev­enue at the slots and ta­bles.

The shift­ing mix, per­haps ac­cel­er­ated by the pan­demic, could lead to long-term changes on the casino floor. It could mean, for one, fewer slots and ta­bles. Pol­lock pointed out that slot ma­chines al­ready were chang­ing be­fore the pan­demic, with a core cus­tomer that was get­ting older and not be­ing re­placed. In the fu­ture, he said, cus­tomers could see not just fewer slots, but also slots fea­tur­ing skill-based and peer-to-peer el­e­ments.

“When we get to the new nor­mal, it’s not go­ing to be the same gam­ing in­dus­try to a cer­tain de­gree,” Pol­lock said.

Poker, for its part, has never been a ma­jor profit cen­ter, but it’s still an im­por­tant seg­ment in a casino’s over­all de­mo­graph­ics, he said.

At Mount Airy’s poker room, so­cial dis­tanc­ing rules and sanitary mea­sures are in place.

In ad­di­tion to op­er­at­ing at lim­ited ca­pac­ity, the casino said all guests and em­ploy­ees are re­quired to wear masks. Hand san­i­tizer is avail­able at each ta­ble, and chips and cards are san­i­tized reg­u­larly.

Spec­ta­tors aren’t per­mit­ted in the room, and chairs and rails are san­i­tized when a player leaves the ta­ble, the casino said.

MOUNTAIRYC­ONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Mount Airy Casino Re­sort in Mon­roe County re­opened its poker room Fri­day with sev­eral pre­cau­tions in place, in­clud­ing di­viders be­tween play­ers.

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