For more than a month, virtually all commercial and tribal gaming establishments have been temporarily closed in an effort to combat the spread of COVID-19.
These unprecedented closures have created significant hurdles for operators to overcome. In particular, operators are faced with determining the optimal way to reopen their establishments—balancing their desire to maximize potential revenues (to help offset the significant losses caused by the closures) with health and social protocols to ensure the well-being of their workers and clientele.
It is imperative, therefore, that operators and regulators use this time to develop measures to re-open properties and safely continue operations in a world with COVID-19. Not only is this important from a health perspective to prevent a second wave of the pandemic (as many casinos are filled with tourists from around the world), but it is also crucial for every operator’s bottom line. When the doors do reopen, lingering fears may very well keep patrons away. In order to see a revival in visitors and revenue, operators and regulators (at no fault of their own) must bear the burden of restoring patron confidence that gaming properties are safe.
In this vein, the Health Bureau of Macau issued technical guidelines to hotels and gaming establishments which focus on preventing the resurgence of COVID-19 following the reopening of properties in the gaming mecca. More recently, the Nevada Gaming Control Board (NGCB) also issued a memorandum detailing minimum procedures that Nevada casinos must implement. First and foremost, the memorandum requires each operator prepare and file reopening plans with the NGCB prior to opening the establishment to the public. As a baseline, these plans must adhere to all prescribed local, state and federal COVID-19 health requirements.
Although, certain Las Vegas officials may not recognize the importance, operators do appreciate that the gaming industry will likely need to voluntarily exceed the health standards so as to demonstrate to patrons that operators are not rolling the dice on their patrons’ heath. For example, the Wynn Las Vegas recently released a copy of its extensive cleaning procedures for hotel and gaming operations demonstrating patron safety is of the utmost priority. The procedures include cleaning elevator buttons at least every hour; limiting elevator capacity to four persons per use; providing patrons with face masks, sanitizer and wipes; sanitizing gaming areas on frequent basis; and sanitizing dice for each new shooter at a craps table.
The purpose of this article is to offer possible considerations for operators (and regulators) to implement once the economy is reopened. This is not an exhaustive list but rather serves to start the discussion of reopening gaming establishments. Importantly, whatever considerations end up being utilized, they should be implemented in a manner to avoid having a discriminatory effect on any certain group of people.
While operators are anxious to reopen, careful attention must be paid to the manner in which this is done as opening too many properties, too quickly, may result in additional financial losses. For example, companies owning multiple properties, which are located within close proximity of each other, should consider strategizing which properties to reopen and when, based on the forecasted number and type of visitors expected over the upcoming months.
During the shutdown, operators should have been developing and conducting online marketing campaigns to maximize reopenings. Social media promotions, contests and sweepstakes can serve as an extremely effective means of continuing patron loyalty, maintaining connections, and upholding the strength of brands while normal day-to-day operations remain closed.
POST-PANDEMIC BUSINESS PROCEDURES
Social distancing: The ability to “social distance” is compounded by the space limitations of a particular establishment. Unlike the “six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon” game, finding six feet of distance from others within the close confines of a gaming floor is difficult, but this is something that operators will need to explore. Possible measures include fewer seats at table games and operating fewer slot machines (e.g., operating every other slot machine in a bank of machines). For instance, the Health Bureau of Macau recommends that patrons be seated at least one meter apart from each other.
Such measures, however, will significantly impact the bottom line. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon operators to reconfigure the layout of their floors in a manner that optimizes revenue while addressing the new expectations of patrons following the COVID-19 pandemic.
Increased hygiene protocols: Since childhood, we have all heard the virtues of handwashing. Now is the time to adhere to those cautionary tales. Going forward, operators will need more sanitization stations throughout their premises so that patrons and employees can clean their hands, which is a relatively easy safeguard to implement. Additionally, operators should ensure that the premises, including all equipment (such as redemption kiosks, slots, tables, keypads for entering player card information, cards, dice and chips for casinos), is disinfected, which is a more challenging task but nonetheless doable with innovative thinking.
Casinos may consider sanitizing the resting pads of gaming tables at the start of a new deck, at the change of dealers, or when a new patron sits at the table. They could also require new players to sanitize their hands before they begin play and after they end a game. While such safeguards are undoubtedly burdensome, patrons may feel more at ease to see heightened cleaning measures.
Similarly, slot machines, chips and associated equipment (such as cards and dice) should be regularly cleaned and high-traffic areas such as the race and sportsbook, the hotel front desk and food and beverage outlets should be disinfected on a frequent basis. For instance, the Health Bureau of Macau recommends that buttons and door handles of entrances be disinfected once an hour during peak periods. Additionally, air filtration enhancements to existing ventilation systems could be considered.
A new version of KYC: While operators are all familiar with know your customer (KYC) requirements regarding financial transactions, the scope of KYC may be expanded in the aftermath of the pandemic. In particular, establishments may consider screening techniques to help prevent the spread of the virus such as checking patron (and employee) temperatures at entrances, which can be done in a noninvasive way, or by using a standard set of screening questions at hotel check-in. Operators may even consider offering complimentary face masks to patrons who prefer to wear them.
Employee protocols: Operators should take steps to ensure a safe work environment and implement controls to prevent exposure to COVID-19 including:
- Instructing employees with symptoms to remain at home.
- Increased housekeeping practices, including routine cleaning and disinfecting of surfaces and equipment in the work environment.
- Employees who interact with patrons on a frequent basis such as dealers, front of house staff, hotel front desk and housekeeping should be provided with face masks and required to sanitize their hands on a periodic basis.
- All employees should be reminded to observe personal hygiene such as covering their noses and mouths when sneezing or coughing and practicing frequent and proper handwashing.
- Procedures to keep social distancing within the employee areas should be maintained (limit in-person meetings, require distance separation during lunch and limit office gatherings). For instance, in Macau, those eating in the employee dining room are advised to sit at least one meter apart. Otherwise, a waterproof partition should be set on the table to prevent the spread of droplets. Macau also encourages all employees to wear face masks in the workplace.
- Each operator should take into consideration the layout of a particular property when developing employee health and safety protocols.
- Lastly, housekeepers should be provided with personal protection equipment for removing bedding and cleaning rooms.
Innovation is key to combat this unprecedented crisis. To instill confidence that it is safe for patrons to return to gaming establishments, gaming companies need to be quick to respond with innovative ideas that help tackle the issues caused by this pandemic. A prime example is Empire Technological Group, a manufacturer of gaming devices that is licensed throughout North America. Recently, Empire established an affiliate company named Pro-Tek Limited to focus on developing and manufacturing hygiene-related technology for the gaming industry (such as thermal screening units for casino patrons and employees). Such innovation will help ensure the industry bounces back as quickly as possible.
The global closure of gaming establishments is unprecedented and the challenges facing operators and regulators are significant. However, this industry is founded on long odds, innovation, vigilance and unparalleled guest service. With these cornerstones and an understanding that operators, regulators and patrons must work together, the gaming industry will soon thrive once again.
Disclaimer: This material has been prepared by Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie LLP for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Specific issues dealing with COVID-19 are fluid and this alert is intended to provide information as it is currently available