Well, no one ever said restarting businesses during an unprecedented global medical crisis would be easy or glitch-free.

At least, that is likely the observation of a growing number of casino managers, tasked with opening and safely maintaining daily operations as coronavirus cases reach record levels in an increasing number of jurisdictions across the U.S. The good news: the American Gaming Association estimates that 86 percent of U.S. commercial and tribal casinos are now open for business, although operating under numerous social distancing and customer occupancy mandates. The bad news: despite these precautions, some properties have undergone COVID outbreaks, forcing many in the industry to recalibrate certain facets of reopening strategies. 

However, this is something most operators expected, given the unpredictable nature of the coronavirus thus far. “We promised that Caesars would continue to evaluate the latest recommendations, directives and medical science regarding the COVID-19 public health emergency and modify our enhanced health and safety protocols accordingly,” said Tony Rodio, CEO of Caesars Entertainment, when Caesars properties started reopening in June.

 

PROPER PRECAUTIONS

Indeed, as casino properties began to open following state-mandating closings that lasted three months or more, it was with strict COVID-prevention operating procedures that often exceeded what was required by local authorities. A typical example was San Diego, Calif-based Sycuan Casino Resort, which created and implemented an extensive and aggressive health and sanitation program to safeguard guests, team members and the surrounding community prior to its May reopening. One of the major initiatives in the new program includes a partnership with TruClean to apply its self-cleaning antimicrobial surface coating throughout Sycuan Casino Resort and Sycuan Market and gas station to create a safer experience for guests. 

Additionally, Sycuan’s team began using thermal cameras for temperature detection for both guests and team members. All guests and team members are required to wear a face covering, and points of entry into the property are limited to allow Sycuan’s security team to conduct a non-invasive temperature check. Sycuan also installed plexiglass shields in close contact areas, such as casino cashiers, restaurant cashiers, Club Sycuan desks, VIP host stations and hotel check-in. Hand sanitizing stations were installed in driveways, reception areas, the casino floor, restaurants, elevator landings areas and more. Table games are limited to a max of three players per table, every other slot machine is turned off for a safer distance between players and all slots and tables are cleaned frequently. Team members were provided with personal protective equipment (PPE) to wear during their shifts and trained extensively on new health and sanitation protocols. 

“We have made extensive changes at our property and implemented an aggressive health and sanitation program to ensure we are doing everything we can to protect our guests and team members for our reopening,” said Cody J. Martinez, chairman, Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “We are slowly opening select venues and gaming areas in phase one of our reopening and will continue to evaluate our reopening strategy to maintain a safe environment for all.”

 

MASKING A PROBLEM

Although COVID-prevention plans were required for every reopening gaming property, some jurisdictions allowed facilities to draft a more liberal set of operating procedures, allowing casinos to choose whether masks should be mandatory for patrons, smoking banned within the property, how often employees should be tested and other items. Unfortunately, these less stringent rules may have the cause to some COVID-19 outbreaks at casinos:

  • Gila River Hotels & Casinos shuttered all three of its properties for two weeks in June after an undisclosed number of its employees contracted coronavirus, with one of the workers eventually succumbing to the disease, according to the Arizona Republic. Unlike some other casinos in the Phoenix area, Gila River Hotels & Casinos were only requiring employees to wear PPE—customers were encouraged, but not mandated, to wear masks, the paper reported. 
     
  • Health officials in North Carolina identified a COVID-19 cluster at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino after five employees of the table games section tested positive last month, according to local reports. 
     
  • The Culinary Union filed a hazardous work conditions lawsuit against a number of Las Vegas Strip properties that they claim failed to provide adequate protections against the spread of coronavirus. Complaints centered on issues such as inadequate COVID testing procedures, lack of social distancing in work environments and having to cater to unmasked guests. 

Since March 1, 2020, 32 Culinary and Bartenders Union members and/or their immediate family members have died from COVID-19, with more than 300 hospitalized, according to a press release.

 

IMPROVING THE DEFENSE

To casino operators credit, response to COVID-related problems that have cropped up during reopening has been swift and, hopefully, adequate. For example, when Caesars Entertainment employees complained about the lack of mask wearing among resort visitors, the company announced in June that everyone indoors at its U.S.-based properties will be required to wear masks at all times; anyone who refuses to wear a mask, after being asked, will be directed to leave the property.

As coronavirus cases surged in Florida last month, Seminole Gaming unveiled a further upgrade of its “Safe + Sound” COVID protection program with the addition of dozens of program enforcement specialists at all Seminole Hard Rock and Seminole Casinos in Florida. According to a press release, the new team members will be hired across five Seminole Gaming locations to focus on managing guest compliance with all program elements: proper use of required masks or face coverings, social distancing, crowd control and remaining stationary while eating or drinking. Program enforcement specialists wear distinctive uniforms to create greater guest awareness of this important issue. Guests must adhere to Safe + Sound program requirements or be asked to leave the property.

“The addition of more Safe + Sound program enforcement specialists is a further enhancement of our industry-leading commitment to ensure the health and safety of our guests and team members,” said Jim Allen, Seminole Gaming CEO and chairman of Hard Rock International. “Our comprehensive approach to dealing with COVID-19 is meant to ensure public safety and give our guests peace of mind when they return.”

Meanwhile, the Culinary Union and UNITE HERE successfully lobbied the Nevada state legislature to pass Senate Bill 4, “a first-in-the-nation legislation that will protect all workers in the hospitality industry in Las Vegas and Reno—wall-to-wall, front-of-the house and back-of-the house, union and non-union, worker and manager,” said Geoconda Argüello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union Local 226.

Senate Bill 4 mandates and enforces the following requirements regarding casinos and hotels in Las Vegas and Reno: 

  • Enhanced cleaning procedures such as daily room cleaning;
  • Social distancing;
  • Free testing for all workers before going back to work or those that have been exposed to COVID-19;
  • Paid time off while workers are in quarantine and/or while waiting for COVD-19 test results; 
  • Temperature checks for workers in the workplace;
  • Detailed plans of action for when a worker contracts COVID-19 or is exposed to someone with the virus; and
  • Safety training for all employees.