A safe bet

Gam­blers don masks and gloves as Md.’s casi­nos re­open with pre­cau­tions in place

The Washington Post - - FRONT PAGE - BY JOE HEIM

Mariam Hashimi, an Am­trak at­ten­dant still wear­ing the pro­tec­tive gear she uses for work, plays the slots at MGM Na­tional Har­bor in Mary­land. The state’s two largest casi­nos re­opened Mon­day, with ex­ten­sive virus safety mea­sures in­clud­ing hand-wash­ing sta­tions and reg­u­lar san­i­ta­tion of dice and chips. Hashimi said she was happy with the changes.

So, are you feel­ing lucky?

That’s what gam­blers around the D.C. re­gion are ask­ing them­selves as they de­cide whether they are com­fort­able re­turn­ing to Mary­land’s casi­nos, the two largest of which re­opened Mon­day after a 3½-month shut­down due to the coro­n­avirus pan­demic.

For Mariam Hashimi, of Wood­bridge, the answer was a qual­i­fied yes. Hashimi said she called MGM Na­tional Har­bor on Mon­day morn­ing to check on safety pre­cau­tions be­fore de­cid­ing to visit. She ar­rived after her shift as an at­ten­dant on Am­trak’s Auto Train, wear­ing the same pro­tec­tive equip­ment she wears for work, in­clud­ing gloves, two face masks and a face shield.

“I said I would come in and if it didn’t feel safe I would leave, but it’s been ex­actly what they told me,” Hashimi, 35, said as she played the Mayan Chief: Em­pow­ered Reel of Itzamna video slot ma­chine on the casino’s 125,000square-foot main floor. Wear­ing the ex­tra pro­tec­tive gear made her feel more safe, but Hashimi said many of her friends had still told her not to go.

“I told them I’d try it out. I guess I’m like the guinea pig,” she said with a muf­fled laugh.

For months, would-be gam­blers have been told to stay home, avoid con­gre­gat­ing in­doors, re­frain from unessen­tial ac­tiv­ity and keep from touch­ing things other peo­ple have touched. But when Mary­land Gov. Larry Ho­gan (R) moved the state into Phase 2 of its re­open­ing plan ear­lier this month, casi­nos were given the green light to wel­come cus­tomers who are now in a po­si­tion to do many of those things that were once off-lim­its.

There are firm rules in place, of course. Every­one must wear masks. Ca­pac­ity is lim­ited to 50 per­cent. Tem­per­a­tures are checked. Hand san­i­tizer is ev­ery­where. But will the gam­blers come back? In Mary­land, it’s a bil­lion-dol­larplus ques­tion.

Casino op­er­a­tors at MGM Na­tional Har­bor in Prince

Ge­orge’s County and Live Casino and Ho­tel in Anne Arun­del County hope there are lots of oth­ers like Hashimi out there ready to re­turn. The state’s two top rev­enue-pro­duc­ing casi­nos, as well as Horse­shoe Casino in Bal­ti­more, which re­opened Sunday, spent much of the shut­down retrofitti­ng their casino floors and de­vel­op­ing new plans to pro­tect cus­tomers and em­ploy­ees as the card deal­ing, dice throw­ing and slot spin­ning re­turns. The state’s three other smaller casi­nos opened ear­lier this month.

First, visi­tors must walk past ther­mal scan­ners that look like radar guns for a tem­per­a­ture check be­fore en­ter­ing the casi­nos. Once in­side, steps have been taken to min­i­mize contact be­tween gam­blers. The num­ber of chairs at all game ta­bles have been re­duced. Plex­i­glas shields have been in­stalled to sep­a­rate play­ers from deal­ers and one an­other. And in the banks of slot ma­chines some have been dis­abled to keep dis­tance be­tween play­ers. Chairs, coun­ters, slot ma­chines and other high-touch ar­eas will be wiped down again and again and again, casino op­er­a­tors say.

In ad­di­tion to changes to casino floors, most of the Mary­land venues have halted valet ser­vice and lim­ited seat­ing in restau­rants and bars to en­sure so­cial dis­tanc­ing. The­aters at the casi­nos re­main closed.

The new safety mea­sures are the only rea­son Ju­liana and Joseph Bil­liams said they were com­fort­able vis­it­ing the casino. The Staunton, Va., cou­ple, who wore match­ing gam­bling-themed masks they bought on Etsy, have been mak­ing re­cent road trips to casi­nos in Con­necti­cut, West Vir­ginia and North Carolina to play slots. The pre­cau­tions in place at MGM were bet­ter than most of the other casi­nos they had vis­ited, said Joseph Bil­liams, 40.

The cou­ple ar­rived early Mon­day to avoid any crowds, said Ju­liana Bil­liams, 35, who works as a trav­el­ing ul­tra­sound tech­ni­cian and has tested many pa­tients sick­ened by the novel coro­n­avirus. She wasn’t about to take too many chances.

“If we see any­thing that makes us un­com­fort­able, we’ll walk out,” she said.

The eco­nomic fall­out of Mary­land’s casino shut­down has been sharply felt. More than 7,000 ful­land part-time em­ploy­ees were forced to stay home, and rev­enue dropped sig­nif­i­cantly. From July 2019, the be­gin­ning of the cur­rent fis­cal year, un­til Fe­bru­ary, the com­bined rev­enue from Mary­land’s six casi­nos was about $147 mil­lion per month, ac­cord­ing to in­for­ma­tion pro­vided by the Mary­land Lottery and Gam­ing Con­trol Agency. When casi­nos were shut down on March 16, to­tal rev­enue for the month dropped to $69 mil­lion.

The state’s share of gam­bling rev­enue has dropped ac­cord­ingly. Taxes on casino earn­ings dur­ing the same pe­riod brought Mary­land close to $61 mil­lion monthly, the agency said. That too dis­ap­peared al­to­gether in mid-march. For the fis­cal year end­ing this month, the amount casi­nos will pay the state is down $149 mil­lion from the pre­vi­ous year.

The bulk of casino tax rev­enue is di­rected to the Mary­land Ed­u­ca­tion Trust Fund and lo­cal ini­tia­tives in com­mu­ni­ties where the casi­nos are lo­cated.

The state’s three smaller casi­nos, Hol­ly­wood Casino in Per­ryville, Ocean Downs Casino in Berlin and Rocky Gap Casino in Flint­stone, re­opened on June 19, but it is the re­open­ing of the three large casi­nos this week that will de­ter­mine whether the in­dus­try can find a safe path back to prof­itabil­ity. A lot is rid­ing on get­ting the re­open­ing plan right.

While the games are the same, the feel on the floor is dif­fer­ent, ac­knowl­edged John Flynn, MGM’S vice pres­i­dent of ad­min­is­tra­tion, who led a tour through the re­vamped casino last week. It may take some get­ting used to.

“There’s a com­fort level that’s go­ing to come with this over many months,” Flynn said. “We know there will be de­mand, but at the same time we’re in no hurry to fill things up. For us the most im­por­tant thing is that our guests and our em­ploy­ees feel safe.”

Flynn pointed to a num­ber of steps the casino had taken to that end, in­clud­ing in­stalling a large hand-wash­ing sta­tion in the mid­dle of the casino floor. Dice will be ex­changed and san­i­tized after each player’s turn, chips will be cleaned and san­i­tized weekly, and the air cir­cu­la­tion rates have been in­creased to the casino and ho­tel’s ven­ti­la­tion sys­tem.

Em­ploy­ees will have their tem­per­a­tures checked upon ar­riv­ing at work and asked whether they have any symp­toms con­sis­tent with the coro­n­avirus, said De­bra Deshong, MGM’S se­nior vice pres­i­dent for cor­po­rate com­mu­ni­ca­tions and in­dus­try af­fairs. Any em­ployee who is ill or has had close contact with some­one who is in­fected will be tested and paid for up to three days to re­main home while await­ing test­ing re­sults. An em­ployee who tests pos­i­tive will con­tinue to be paid while they re­main home in iso­la­tion for two weeks.

Bev­erly Vil­lanueva Lee, a tablegames dealer at MGM since the casino opened in 2016, said some em­ploy­ees, par­tic­u­larly those liv­ing with elderly fam­ily mem­bers, have been re­luc­tant to re­turn to work and want to see how the safety pro­to­cols work.

But for Vil­lanueva Lee, who was back on the job Mon­day, the new pro­ce­dures were re­as­sur­ing.

“I’m ex­cited to be back,” she said. “We’ve been gone long enough.”

In the­ory, ev­ery­thing that can be done has been done to en­sure gam­bling’s safe re­turn. But pub­lic health ex­perts con­tinue to urge cau­tion and point to guide­lines from the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion that rec­om­mend older Amer­i­cans and those with un­der­ly­ing med­i­cal con­di­tions avoid in­door gath­er­ings where it may be dif­fi­cult to main­tain so­cial dis­tanc­ing or avoid in­ter­act­ing with peo­ple from out­side your lo­cal area.

In Ne­vada, where casi­nos re­opened in early June, a spike in coro­n­avirus cases prompted the gov­er­nor to an­nounce new re­stric­tions and or­der mask wear­ing in casi­nos and bars when it had pre­vi­ously been op­tional. New Jer­sey will al­low At­lantic City’s casi­nos to re­open Thurs­day at 25 per­cent ca­pac­ity and with strict guide­lines in place.

The re­open­ing in Mary­land will be watched closely.

“I think the mea­sures be­ing taken could be help­ful,” said Jacob Bueno de Mesquita, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at the Mary­land In­sti­tute for Ap­plied En­vi­ron­men­tal Health at the Univer­sity of Mary­land’s School of Pub­lic Health. “It is good that they are do­ing tem­per­a­ture read­ing and ex­clud­ing peo­ple that could pose risks, and the re­duc­tion in ca­pac­ity is im­por­tant, too.”

But Bueno de Mesquita, who is work­ing on a study by the in­sti­tute to quan­tify the coro­n­avirus’s spread in mi­cro­scopic par­ti­cles through ex­haled breaths, ac­knowl­edged that re­open­ing so­ci­ety re­quires some com­pro­mises and that even with pre­cau­tion­ary steps there is a level of risk in­volved.

“If the only con­sid­er­a­tion is in­ter­rupt­ing vi­ral trans­mis­sion, we would prob­a­bly be tak­ing much more strin­gent ac­tions to do that,” he said.

Asked if he would go to a casino now, Bueno de Mesquita said, “No, be­cause it’s not es­sen­tial for me.”

“We know there will be de­mand, but . . . we’re in no hurry to fill things up. For us the most im­por­tant thing is that our guests and our em­ploy­ees feel safe.”

John Flynn, MGM’S vice pres­i­dent of ad­min­is­tra­tion

MATT MCCLAIN/THE Washington POST

PHO­TOS BY MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: MGM Na­tional Har­bor re­opened Mon­day. Ju­liana and Joseph Bil­liams have trav­eled to three difer­ent states to play the slots, but say Mary­land has the best safety pre­cau­tions. Ser­vando Woods wipes down a hand-wash­ing sta­tion.

MATT MCCLAIN/THE WASHINGTON POST

Casino deal­ers An­gel­ica Allen, right, and Bev­erly Vil­lanueva Lee at MGM Na­tional Har­bor. Vil­lanueva Lee said some em­ploy­ees have been re­luc­tant to re­turn and want to see how the safety pro­to­cols work.

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