The COVID-19 pandemic is a dramatic, drastic and sudden game changer for casinos and cardrooms. Indeed, if you believe that one day the government will say, “Go ahead and reopen your casino,” and everything you did and offered in the past will stay the same, guess again—it won’t and everyone needs to come to grips with this fact. It’s time to realize the concerns regarding infectious viruses and diseases are here to stay for the foreseeable future, and if you are unable to think outside the box for operational solutions going forward, you will lose.
It’s a safe bet that before casinos and cardrooms will be allowed to reopen, management of those establishments will have to prove to their regulatory bodies that people and personnel entering the property will be safe, and that the facility will be maintained in a manner that will promote a healthy and sanitized environment in which people, under strict rules and regulations, will be able to engage in gambling without being placed at risk of contracting contagions.
The good or bad news, depending on how you look at it, is that gaming facilities still have time to develop and fine-tune these reopening plans since, even though I have dusted off my crystal ball, I still have no insight as to when slot machines and table games will again be available to the public. In March, when states were shuttering non-essential businesses and advising its citizens to “shelter in place,” my uneducated estimate for reopening casinos/cardrooms was right around the Memorial Day weekend. By then the pandemic should have peaked and diminished, health care services would have caught up with the demand, and people would be bored enough to start weighing the risk for venturing out of their homes. It would also be the right time to get the economy jump started to head into the summer months.
But to paraphrase Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, no one can determine when the world will be safe to congregate in mass, only the COVID-19 virus can make that decision. As COVID-19 cases start to peak, and evidence exists that the number of infections are on the decline, it will be time to consider reopening all businesses, and getting our economy on the right track to recovery.
DEVELOPING A GAME PLAN
How to keep everyone safe inside the facility is the main issue casino and cardroom management need to take into consideration before reopening for business. It’s important to tackle this situation using a risk-based approach; determining risks based on geographical location, demographics of the customer base, and the physical dimensions and conditions of the entire facility. By determining the levels of infectious risk, management will be better suited in planning a reopening (and operational) strategy, and determine how to adequately assign resources in order to accomplish what is necessary—the safety of everyone entering the facility.
Here are three primary areas of concern that need to be addressed before the doors can open and business resumes:
- How to control and prevent or, at the very least, greatly reduce the chance that virus infection is brought into the facility by customers.
- How to guarantee that all employees are virus free with a minimal chance of infecting other employees and customers.
- Establishment of policies and procedures that will allow the casinos and cardrooms to accomplish the first two areas of health concerns.
What follows are some of my ideas on what smart casino and cardroom operators need to think about when designing their reopening strategy.
Employee testing and documentation: Before an employee can come to work, they will have to be “certified” as a non-infected person. In order to certify, the employee must pass either a COVID-19 test to see if they are infected or an antibody test to see if they were infected at one time and now possess the infection antibodies that render them immune to COVID-19. Following this protocol will greatly reduce the chance that a contaminated employee could enter the facility.
Some items to keep in mind about COVID-19 testing procedures:
- For the COVID virus test, which detects COVID RNA, the employee must test negative to COVID-19 before being allowed back to work. This test will need to be taken once a week. Test results can be obtained in a few hours or a few days.
- For the antibody test, also known as a serology tests, an employee must test positive for an antibody before coming back to the workplace and should be retested every two months. One company indicated that a finger stick test could produce results in 15 minutes or less.
Primarily there are three antibodies that are produced when the body’s immune system is fighting COVID-19: IgM, a generic fighter that spikes within a few days of infection; IgG, which recognizes and fights the virus—as IgM levels drop, IgG peaks around 28 days after the onset of the infection; and IgA, which is important in fighting respiratory infections. Some serology tests look for only IgM and IgG while other test looks for all three.
- While a positive antibody test indicates that the employee does not have the virus, and is immune to the virus for several months, the person who test negative for the COVID-19 can still become infected with the virus any time afterwards. Employees who have been cleared to work following a COVID test, but then shortly thereafter test positive for COVID, need to be immediately furloughed and barred from returning until their symptoms have subsided and they test positive for antibodies.
While this method of testing isn’t a guarantee that an employee won’t catch the virus in the future, it will reduce the threat to a very manageable and acceptable risk.
Customer screening: Due to employees testing positive for the COVID-19 virus, casinos in Macau closed for 15 days in February. Once they reopened, the government dictated radical changes be made to the gaming operations in order to protect the employees and customers, and to reduce the spread of the COVID virus. Based on gaming articles coming out of Macau, all casinos are screening customers at the door prior to entering the facility and scanning them for an elevated body temperature. If the temperature scan indicates the customer has a temperature greater that 37 degrees Centigrade (98.6 Fahrenheit), they are not allowed to enter the casino.
Although not eliminating the threat entirely, rejection for possessing an elevated temperature, one of the primary indicators of an infection, greatly reduces the possibility of granting entrance to a sick person. Stay away from rejecting customers for having a runny nose or persistent cough. These are not necessarily indications of COVID infection, and could easily be allergies, a common head cold, or smoker’s hack.
At this point, the customers admitted into the casino in Macau are required to put on a surgical-type mask, either one the customer has in his possession or one provided by the casino. If the customer refuses to wear a mask, he is rejected as well. Some Macau Casinos are also providing customers the option of disposable gloves but have not made it a mandatory requirement yet.
Safety equipment: One positive trait about the COVID-19 is that a person’s skin is thick enough to keep the virus from passing into their body by contact. Indeed, it appears coronavirus is largely spread by the pathogen entering through a body opening such as the eyes, mouth or nose, which means protective equipment can be used to keep employees and visitors better protected from possible infection.
The most widely used pieces of safety equipment by health care personnel and the general public are face masks, surgical or otherwise. Not all face masks are made the same. Health care personnel, working in proximity with known infected patients but unable to use an enclosed environmental system, wear surgical masks rated “N95”. An N95 is used to protect the person from 95 percent of all particles in the immediate atmosphere, which includes the COVID-19 virus. Any mask rated less than the N95, which most are, suffice in keeping a majority of airborne particles within the mask itself, and are used to reduce (not prevent) the spread of the virus to others. Since water droplets from coughs and sneezes are the main threat of spreading the infection, all non-N95 masks are utilized to protect others but are not designed to protect the person wearing it.
Disposable gloves are another safety item used to help limit the spread of the virus. Unfortunately, gloves are not the total answer, since viruses attach as easily to the gloves as they do to human skin. If you have a bad habit of touching your eyes, nose, and mouth, the gloves accomplish nothing since the virus will travel from the gloves to those areas as easily as it would on a bare hand. The difference is that one can remove the gloves, and if properly handled and disposed of, add another layer of protection.
Please note that even with this safety equipment, the best protection against contracting and spreading COVID-19 is still washing your hands in soap and water as frequently as possible, and not touching the area of your face.
Social distancing: Based on information learned from the media, social distancing appears to be the most important tool in the prevention of the spread of COVID-19. Since social distancing is important, casinos and cardrooms need to focus on maintaining this policy once the customers and employees are allowed back in the confines of the gambling floor. When the casinos in Macau reopened the end of February, in addition to limiting the amount of employees and visitors allowed in the casino at any one time, access to table and slot gaming positions were restricted as well, in order to distance the customers from each other.
What follows are procedures put in place to accommodate the distance needed to keep the gambling environment as safe as possible for both the customer’s and the employees:
- An active game table must operate between two closed tables (in Macau, this meant 50 percent of table games remain closed).
- A maximum of three players on five/six position tables with unoccupied seats in between. Seven position tables limited to four players with same unoccupied seat requirement.
- No customers can stand at the table or behind seated players.
- Depending on the number of slot machines in a bank or cluster, the number of shut down machines between customers varies; however, the same social distancing rules apply.
It’s my understanding that maintaining these levels is not a problem. Due to COVID-19 boarder restrictions with mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and other neighboring countries, the Macau casinos were operating at a reduced revenue flow of approximately 80 percent in March. This probably will not be the case in North American casinos where the immediate player base will be greater, and not limited by international borders.
With any reopening plan, social distancing needs to be strongly addressed. Reluctance to do so will more than likely delay regulatory acceptance if not resulting in a straightforward denial.
Another issue to consider is the activity that occurs off the table on the customer’s side of the game. Another restriction used in Macau is that no customers can stand at or near the table, or behind other customers playing at the table. This policy might require rope and stanchions to be placed around each game in order to prevent non-playing customers from getting too close to the active table game. Around Asian style games like baccarat, pai gow, and pai gow poker, customers may not place bets from off the table. Some casinos will accept “backline” betting (betting on someone else’s betting position) but the player must be seated at the table, and the backline bet must be placed through the dealer (no leaning across the table). Other games like roulette, sic bo, and craps also have social distancing restrictions that include proper seated spacing at the table as well as direct wagering placement restrictions.
Fewer open tables and gaming positions allows operators to reduce the number of staff members required to operate the games, which will help gaming facilities operating under capacity limits that are likely to include gaming personnel on the casino floor in addition to the customer totals.
Keeping the facility sanitized and safe: Casinos and cardroom should opt to close for several hours a day instead of being open continuously for twenty-four hours. During this period of closure to the public, staff members can engage in efforts to deep clean and sanitize gaming tables, slot machines and other public areas. Carpets, tabletops, chairs, counters, podiums and other furnishings can be cleaned. Management needs to institute a policy of using checklists and logs and issuing reports regarding what areas of the casino have been cleaned and sanitized, who was involved in this process, and report on recommended areas of improvement.
Sanitizing options: Since the COVID-19 virus is not a living entity (viruses never are), it cannot be killed in the normal sense; it must be dissolved and destroyed.
From the material I have been reading, the COVID virus consists of a protein surrounded by a fatty molecule. In order to destroy the virus, the fatty molecule must be dissolved first. Therefore, hot water (over 75 degrees) and soap seem to be one of the best agents for fighting the spread of the virus. Keep in mind that other cleaning solutions must contain at least 65 percent alcohol to destroy the virus—which means most hand sanitizers are ineffective since they don’t contain a large enough percentage of alcohol per volume to do the trick. The casino/cardroom should strongly consider placing several hand washing stations on the casino floor (in addition to the restrooms). The stations will provide the customers with areas of opportunity to soap up. Employees need to have access to handwashing stations as well, whether shared or maintained separate from the public.
Another method for sanitizing surfaces and/or gaming equipment would be to expose the surfaces/equipment to ultraviolet light waves. Reports have indicated that the COVID-19 virus can be destroyed using UV-C light sources that produce a light wave in the range of 200 to 280 nanometers. A study shows that the use of a UV-C light source will result in a 99.94 percent reduction in coronavirus after 45 minutes; 15 minutes if the light source is within 10 feet of the surface or equipment. While surfaces like tabletops can be easily sanitized using soap and water, UV-C might be a practical alternative for disinfecting gambling chips, currency, dice, pai gow tiles, and playing cards. From what I understand, UV-C can also be used to sanitize surgical masks if they are in short supply.
Maintaining gaming equipment: Most standard casino table games that utilize playing cards should not have a problem maintaining the sanitized safety of the cards. Games such as blackjack and baccarat, can be dealt in a “face-up” manner where only the dealer touches the cards. Reusing these cards for the entire day should not represent any health risks. Dealers entering the game will be required to wash their hands with soap and water prior to relieving the previous dealer. Requiring dealers to wear disposable gloves could be a consideration, however, I do not know if specific games can be dealt sufficiently while wearing gloves.
Hand-dealt games, especially alternative card games such as Three Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Holdem, and other poker style games, present a problem. In these games, the customers touch the cards while making their playing/additional betting decisions. Replacing decks of cards after several rounds would be impractical based on hands dealt per hour and cost of playing cards. Even changing the cards once per hour could be costly and time prohibitive.
One alternative would be to require customers to wear disposable gloves that are provided at each table. Before a customer could play, they would need to “glove up”. Again, this procedure would not eliminate the health risk, only reduce it, possibly to a reasonable level.
The use of dice and tiles in games like craps and pai gow also provide a problem since they are handled by the customers. Replacing this equipment on a regular basis might be doable. Dice could be replaced after every shooter (seven-out), with the used dice transported and place into a UV-C sanitizing chamber and rotated accordingly. Pai gow tile presents a different problem. Tiles could be replaced every hour or half-hour since the replacement time should be minimal. Like the dice, the sets of tiles could also be placed into a UV-C sanitizer and reused once sanitized (possibly after 15 minutes). Insisting the customer’s wear gloves when shooting the dice or playing pai gow could be another solution with UV-C sanitizing as the backup, but will probably be unacceptable to the traditional gaming customers.
Be sure you are still insured: It is strongly suggested that management and their legal advisors double check to make sure the casino is still covered under their previous liability insurance policy. Insurance companies tend to cancel policies and run for cover after major crises in order to protect their own exposures. It would be wise to make sure your gambling operation is still covered, especially regarding COVID-19 illness, when proceeding forward to reopen.
In addition, double check your Workman’s Compensation issuance for cancellation or changes in policy. I envision Workmen’s Comp expenses skyrocketing due to fear of another epidemic.
The safer your facility, the more likely you can argue for better rates (or rates not as expensive) from your insurance carrier and underwriter.
POINTS TO REMEMBER…
- Conduct a “risk assessment” of your gaming operation. Consider the geographic location and the degree of infection experienced in your immediate area and the area(s) in which you market. Consider the physical dimension and extended area of your gaming floor, and the equipment that is used to deal your games. What is the likelihood that a virus can be passed from one person to other during a standard period of play? Develop policies and procedures based on the risk assessment that will reasonably mitigate these risks.
- Consider what games you offer and the play characteristics of each game, especially table games where the customers tend to huddle together (craps for example). Determine alternative procedures and/or physical barriers that can be used to keep players at a safe distance from one another.
- Incorporate reasonable measures for screening the apparent health of customers before entering the facility such as checking everyone’s temperature. Mandate that all customers (and employees) must wear protective face masks to limit exposure to others.
- Establish a COVID testing process for your employees. Test for both the virus, and for the antibodies from the virus to reasonably ensure that your employees are not likely to infect others, both customers and other employees. Be sure to continue testing of employees until vaccines are available.
- Keep employees safe by requiring they wear face masks, and disposable gloves when necessary or acceptable. You may also wish to consider face shields for any employee dealing at the gaming table. The new mantra of the casino executive should always be, “safety first.”
- Implement policies and procedures for cleaning and sanitizing equipment and furniture that have been active on the gaming floor. Be sure that there are check lists in place to track this cleaning process, and a system for reporting anything that could provide a hazard to someone’s health. Consider limiting hours of gaming operation in order to spend more time ensuring the gaming floor, equipment, and furniture are safe from lingering infection.
- Continue to employ “social distancing” policies. Keep customers separated or design workable options such as barriers.
- Be sure that your organization is protected from a legal standpoint as well. Make sure your liability and workmen’s comp insurance are adequate and cover the company from any COVID-19 fallout.