Scans, par­ti­tions, masks in store for casino­go­ers

In­dus­try hopes new look can woo gam­blers back when al­lowed to re­open

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Jeff Barker

Poker rooms, black­jack ta­bles, slot ma­chines and roulette wheels sit in what feels like un­nat­u­ral si­lence as Maryland casi­nos pre­pare for when the state de­cides they can safely re­open.

Ther­mal cam­eras also await guests in or­der to gauge their tem­per­a­tures un­ob­tru­sively at en­try points, and there are clear acrylic di­viders to pro­tect play­ers and deal­ers at ta­ble games, dis­pos­able face masks and signs with mes­sages such as

“Prac­tice So­cial Dis­tanc­ing” and “Cough and Sneeze into your El­bow.”

It will be a new world for the state’s half-dozen casi­nos, which are re­think­ing the look and rules of their gam­bling floors to try to ease cus­tomers’ con­cerns about the coro­n­avirus, the con­ta­gion that’s swept the nation sick­en­ing nearly 1.6 mil­lion and killing al­most 100,000 peo­ple.

“It’s go­ing to look com­pletely dif­fer­ent,” David Cordish, chair­man and CEO of the Cordish Cos., said of his Live Casino & Ho­tel in Hanover. “It’s go­ing to have space where we used to have peo­ple and ma­chines.”

Like so many facets of their busi­ness, the casi­nos’ ef­forts rep­re­sent a gam­ble. They are bet­ting that — be­cause of their re­tool­ing, masks, vast gam­ing floors, rules re­quir­ing so­cial dis­tanc­ing and con­stant sur­veil­lance — they can ease any coro­n­avirus con­cerns of reg­u­la­tors, pub­lic health of­fi­cials and, most im­por­tantly, their guests who want to wa­ger.

Gov. Larry Ho­gan or­dered casi­nos,

race­tracks and off-track bet­ting par­lors shut down in­def­i­nitely, ef­fec­tive March 16, to try to limit the spread of the highly con­ta­gious virus, which has sick­ened more than 44,000 Mary­lan­ders and killed more than 2,000.

Thou­sands of casino work­ers have been fur­loughed. Live, which has more than 2,500 em­ploy­ees, said it fur­loughed the vast ma­jor­ity of the staff. So did Horseshoe Casino Bal­ti­more, which nor­mally em­ploys more than 1,300 peo­ple.

It is un­cer­tain when they will re­open.

“If we were to get the high sign from the gov­er­nor, I think we could prob­a­bly open up in a cou­ple weeks,” said Gordon Me­denica, the state’s lot­tery and gam­ing di­rec­tor. “I think we all rec­og­nize that this will be a work in progress even af­ter the open­ing. It’s go­ing to be the new nor­mal for some pe­riod of time.”

Both the casi­nos and the state have plenty of mo­ti­va­tion to safely get them re­opened. Maryland casi­nos, which have been set­ting rev­enue records in re­cent years, pay mil­lions to the state each month.

The state’s casi­nos gen­er­ated more than $150 mil­lion in rev­enue in Fe­bru­ary, their last full month of op­er­at­ing.

Maryland’s share of casino money is im­por­tant to the state’s bud­get. Casi­nos gen­er­ated $717.5 mil­lion for the state dur­ing the fis­cal year that ended last June 30. The state’s casino money sup­ports its ed­u­ca­tion trust fund as well as horse rac­ing and grant funds for the com­mu­ni­ties around the casi­nos.

Ho­gan an­nounced a three-stage plan for Maryland’s even­tual re­open­ing in late April, start­ing with lift­ing the stay-at-home or­der and al­low­ing more recre­ation ac­tiv­i­ties and some stores and ser­vices to re­open on a re­stricted bases. That first-stage be­gan last week, but lo­cal gov­ern­ments are al­lowed to keep some lim­i­ta­tions in place as they have in Bal­ti­more City, home to a Horseshoe casino; Anne Arun­del County, home to Live casino; and Prince Ge­orge’s County, home of the MGM Na­tional Har­bor Re­sort & Casino.

It’s not clear whether the state will con­sider casi­nos for the sec­ond or third stage. Stage two would al­low larger so­cial gath­er­ings, in­door gym classes and reli­gious ser­vices, and restau­rant and bar ser­vice with re­stric­tions. Stage three would al­low large so­cial gath­er­ings, fewer re­stric­tions on vis­i­tors at nurs­ing homes and hos­pi­tals, and the re­open­ing of en­ter­tain­ment venues.

Mov­ing through the re­open­ing stages has been pred­i­cated on de­clines in the num­ber of new COVID-19 cases, hos­pi­tal­iza­tions and deaths, as well as ex­panded test­ing, con­tact trac­ing, hospi­tal ca­pac­ity and per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment sup­plies.

When­ever they get the green light, there will be plenty at stake, in­clud­ing the casi­nos’ rep­u­ta­tions and the safety of thou­sands of guests.

“One thing they have go­ing for them is the casino floors are very spa­cious,” said James Karmel, a Har­ford Com­mu­nity Col­lege pro­fes­sor and casino an­a­lyst. “They have high ceil­ings mostly. That’s con­ducive to air flow.”

But Karmel pre­dicted that, even with the mod­i­fi­ca­tions, “there is still go­ing to be a cer­tain pop­u­la­tion that de­cides it’s just not enough. How big will that group be? I think it’s hard to say right now.”

Jake Rosen­berg, a Wash­ing­ton area poker player in his late 20s, and some of the peo­ple he plays with are “wait­ing un­til things are a bit more nor­mal,” he said. “I think it’s best just to wait un­til we can be con­fi­dent we are safe.”

Since clos­ing, the casi­nos have mod­eled var­i­ous looks. On a re­cent morn­ing, Live had placed acrylic par­ti­tions at ta­ble game sta­tions for black­jack, bac­carat and roulette. Be­hind the clear di­viders, the deal­ers would re­sem­ble bank tell­ers.

A “mouse hole” at the bot­tom would en­able the ex­change of chips.

The casino in­tends to limit the num­ber of play­ers sit­ting at gam­ing ta­bles and stag­ger ad­mis­sions so crowds don’t form.

Con­tact­less ther­mal cam­eras were po­si­tioned at en­try points to scan guests’ body tem­per­a­tures, many slot ma­chines had been turned off to cre­ate space be­tween play­ers, and a sup­ply of dis­pos­able, sur­gi­cal­grade face masks was to be avail­able for guests who ne­glected the re­quire­ment of bring­ing their own. Staff also will wear masks, and some will have full face shields.

Slot ma­chines, chips, gam­ing ta­bles and other sur­faces will re­ceive “clean­ing and san­i­tiz­ing” more fre­quently than be­fore, ac­cord­ing to a health and safety plan the Live casino has pre­pared.

Some games will op­er­ate with play­ers not per­mit­ted to touch the cards.

“If the game re­quires play­ers to han­dle the cards, we will change the cards more fre­quently,” the casino said in a state­ment in re­sponse to a Bal­ti­more Sun in­quiry. “Both deal­ers and guests have the op­tion to wear gloves, but it is not manda­tory.”

Prior to clos­ing, the state’s casi­nos had pro­posed re­duc­ing the num­ber of pa­trons al­lowed in their build­ings by 50% to min­i­mize “cus­tomer in­ter­ac­tions” in re­sponse to the out­break. But they were or­dered shut down a day later.

“We would never think of open­ing at more than 50% ca­pac­ity,” Cordish said. “We would open by invit­ing guests. We have ev­ery­body’s emails.”

With the rules and mod­i­fi­ca­tions, “we’ll be one of the safest busi­nesses in the state,” said Rob Nor­ton, pres­i­dent of Cordish Gam­ing Group and of Live.

Other Maryland casi­nos are tak­ing sim­i­lar, al­though not iden­ti­cal, steps. The casi­nos say their plans may be ad­justed based on the gov­er­nor’s fu­ture guide­lines.

MGM Na­tional Har­bor de­clined in­ter­view re­quests but for­warded a safety plan for MGM Re­sorts In­ter­na­tional prop­er­ties that in­cluded tem­per­a­ture screen­ings, dis­tanc­ing poli­cies and other mea­sures. It said em­ploy­ees would wear masks and guests would be “strongly en­cour­aged” to do so.

Horseshoe Casino Bal­ti­more falls un­der the um­brella of Cae­sars En­ter­tain­ment, which — like other casino com­pa­nies — pro­posed a num­ber of pro­to­cols em­pha­siz­ing dis­tanc­ing and clean­ing sur­faces.

“As we con­tinue to plan for our re­open­ing in Bal­ti­more, we are draw­ing on the first-hand ex­pe­ri­ence of col­leagues who have al­ready re­opened Cae­sars-op­er­ated casi­nos in sev­eral mar­kets across the coun­try,” said Randy Con­roy, Horseshoe Bal­ti­more se­nior vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager. He said the casino would “cre­ate a com­fort­able en­vi­ron­ment for both our guests and our team mem­bers as health and safety re­main a pri­or­ity.”

Ac­cord­ing to the Amer­i­can Gam­ing As­so­ci­a­tion, 162 of the 989 com­mer­cial and tribal casi­nos that were closed due to the pan­demic have since re­opened, as of Fri­day.

“So far the re­sponse has been ter­rific to the casi­nos that have re­opened,” said Alan Woin­ski, pres­i­dent of Gam­ing USA Corp., which pub­lishes in­dus­try news­let­ters. “The real ques­tion is how much money can the casi­nos make with half the num­ber of gam­ing po­si­tions? That ques­tion won’t be an­swered un­til the end of the sum­mer.”

KARL MER­TON FERRON/BAL­TI­MORE SUN

An­thony Faranca, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent and gen­eral man­ager, stands be­hind a bar­rier at a mod­i­fied ta­ble at Maryland Live Casino.

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