More U.S. Casino Markets Poised to Reopen
Two months after U.S. casinos shut down due to the coronavirus, many have opened or are planning to do so. Tribal casinos have been opened in California, Arizona and Oklahoma, and states like Mississippi, Arkansas, South Dakota and Louisiana are scheduled to open this week—except for Bossier City, Louisiana’s DiamondJacks casino (l.), which announced it has closed for good due to the crisis.
The U.S. casino market, forcibly closed in mid-March due to the coronavirus scare, are gradually beginning to reopen, many in time for Memorial Day weekend. Some have already reopened, with social distancing, sanitization measures and special equipment in place. Here’s a look at how markets are handling the comeback, which is changing the way casinos operate, possibly for good.
The tribal casino industry in the Golden State of California has begun to reopen after a two-month lull. To a degree, this mirrors Governor Gavin Newsom’s four-tier plan for reopening; in some cases it jumps ahead of it.
Win River Casino in Northern California, operated by the Redding Rancheria, closed March 20 and reopened May 15, with mandatory masks for all and heightened temperature screenings for employees and customers. Patrons’ temperatures are taken as they walk in the door, and masks handed out to those who don’t have them.
Hand-sanitizing stations are placed throughout the property. Restaurants are open on a limited basis, and no alcohol is being served. Plexiglas barriers have been erected where patrons interact with team members.
Viejas Casino and Resort, in San Diego County, which closed March 20, plans to reopen May 18 at 8 a.m. Viejas will have similar precautions in place, including the temperature scans and it will post signs throughout reminding guests of the new protocols on social distancing. Masks will be mandatory. Any guest or employee exhibiting signs of illness will be asked to leave.
Every other machine will be turned off and table games will be limited to three seated players. Restaurants and lounges will have limited seating while pools, spas and fitness centers will be closed. No live entertainment will be offered. The casino will be closed every day for four hours for deep cleaning and UVC treatment.
Harrah’s Resort Southern California, operated by the Rincon Band of Luiseño Indians in San Diego County, will have a “limited safety-first opening” on May 22, according to tribal chairman Bo Mazzetti. The casino closed on March 16, one of the first in the county to do so.
In a recent interview with The Roadrunner, Mazzetti said, “We’re ready to go!” Harrah’s will institute most of precautions named above, and Mazzetti predicts a slow rise back to profitability. “It will be a gradual, slow process to get back up anywhere near what we used to generate,” he said.
The opening, he said, “means social distancing, separation, no big crowds. All the safety recommendations that are all over the United States. Like spacing every other slot machine.”
Mazzetti said the key to a successful reopening will be making patrons feels safe. “It’s that safety factor. ‘Do I feel safe? Do I feel comfortable? Am I confident of my health that I’m ready to go out?”
Sycuan Casino Resort, also in San Diego County, plans to open May 20 at noon, after closing on March 20. Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation Chairman Cody J. Martinez commented, “Over the past several weeks, 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.”
The reopening will be done in phases with some slots, restaurants and other amenities remaining closed in the initial phase and the ones that are open having limited hours.
Sycuan has partnered with TruClean, which applied a self-cleaning antimicrobial surface throughout the property, including the market and gas station.
As with other area casinos, masks and temperature checks will be required and social distancing will be enforced. Plexiglas barriers will protect cashiers, loyalty club desks, VIP host stations and hotel registration. Table games will be limited to three players per table and half of the slots will be dark to implement social distancing.
The reopenings are being done over the protest of San Diego Public Health Officer Dr. Wilma Wooten, who has threatened to ask help from the CDC and who declared on May 14: “We feel the health officer’s order does extend to the tribal nations in this particular situation and we are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to try to address this issue further.”
Riverside County casinos are following a somewhat later schedule with Pechanga Resort Casino, the largest casino on the West Coast, planning a June 1 reopening. The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians closed it on March 16. The tribe reopened the RV resort on May 5 and its golf course on April 26.
The RV resort offers a limited number of spaces and requires guests to wear masks outside of their campers and to social distance with those not members of their immediate family. The hotel has begun taking reservations for June 1. The same safety precautions other casinos are utilizing will be in force, including mandatory masks for everyone and touchless temperature checks.
The return of special events is not in the cards for the immediate future and the spa and pool will also remain closed at first.
Casinos in the Grand Canyon state this week are beginning to reemerge from a two-months shutdown. All properties that open will operate under new protocols that stress sanitation, social distancing and health screening.
After two months in lockdown, several of Arizona’s casinos were preparing to open May 15 at 9 a.m. Most expected to reopen under new protocols designed to emphasize sanitation, social distancing and health screening.
Slot machines will be spaced apart and three patrons will be allowed to sit at blackjack tables. Employees will wear masks and sanitation stations will be scattered around the property. Where employees interact with patrons they will be protected by Plexiglas shields.
Casinos that had announced they would open included Fort McDowell Casino, Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino and Gila River’s Lone Butte, Wild Horse Pass, and Vee Quiva. They will reopen on the day that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey’s stay at home executive order expires. Their hotels will open in the evening.
The Gila River casinos will limit players at table games and bingo and separate slot machines with Plexiglas barriers.
Fort McDowell Casino will open in stages, “one step at a time,” according to a press release, starting with blackjack and adding bingo on May 22. Visitors will have their temperatures taken before passing inside and must practice social distancing. Those whose temperatures are above 100 degrees won’t be allowed inside.
Harrah’s Ak-Chin Hotel and Casino will also open in phases, with the poker room, spa and fitness center staying closed for the moment.
The next day Mazatzal Hotel & Casino will reopen, according to its website.
Talking Stick Resort and Casino and Casino Arizona, operated by the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, previously announced they will reopen after May 31.
Bucky’s Casino and Yavapai Casino plan to open June 1 at 8 a.m. with machines and tables arranged to enhance social distancing. Employees are being given Covid-10 training before returning to work and will wear PPE gear. Employees and guests must wear masks and guests will be temperature tested.
Cliff Casino, Twin Arrows Casino Resort, Desert Diamond West Valley Casino, have not announced reopen dates.
In one of the states hardest hit by Covid-19, Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards recently announced that casinos will be allowed to reopen at 25 percent capacity on May 18. It’s not clear how many casinos actually will reopen on that date.
Edwards and Dr. Alex Billioux, assistant secretary for the state’s Office of Public Health, said they felt confident in reopening the state due to two weeks of declining numbers of new cases, people with symptoms and hospitalizations, plus increased testing and contact tracing capacity.
Billioux said, “There is no playbook on how you can deem your state is 100 percent ready to reopen. What we need to look at is overall do you see the trends moving in the right direction.”
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell indicated the city also began loosening restrictions on May 15, when the city’s own stay-at-home order expired. However, Cantrell issued other rules for casinos, preventing the reopening of Harrah’s New Orleans casino as well as video poker rooms.
The Louisiana Racing Commission and the Gaming Control Board have issued guidelines regarding casino reopenings, including increasing sanitation throughout the casino; social distancing must be maintained; and employees must wear masks.
Edwards cautioned people to continue to practice social distancing, wear masks in public and stay home when sick. He said a spike in Covid-19 cases following reopening could lead him to require restrictions once again. “While we’re easing restrictions, it’s not mission accomplished. We’re not declaring victory. There’s still Covid out there,” Edwards said.
On May 15, DiamondJacks Casino & Hotel in Bossier City announced the facility would not reopen after the state’s mandated closure period concludes, due to business circumstances caused by the unexpected impact of the coronavirus. All casino employees have been notified and are eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, effectively immediately.
“In light of the sudden, unforeseeable market conditions that have resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic, the difficult decision has been made to close the casino,” said Diana Thornton, vice president of finance at DiamondJacks. “We have worked diligently to be a valued member of the Shreveport-Bossier City business community. We are saddened for the loss of a longtime business here in Louisiana.”
Officials at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River in North Carolina said a phased reopening will start Monday, May 18 following mid-March shutdowns due to the Covid-19 virus. Areas where social distancing and lower occupancy are possible will open first, including the gaming floor, hotel and some restaurants. Areas where social distancing is not possible, such as the spa, valet, poker tables, buffet and concert venue will remain closed until further notice.
In a statement, casino officials said guests will allowed in by invitations, which were emailed starting May 13. “During this initial phase, only invited guests will be able to make hotel reservations or access the properties. The number of invitations may increase over time as it becomes appropriate to do so,” the statement read.
Furloughed workers will return to work as their individual work areas reopen. Prior to their shifts, officials said all employees will complete a questionnaire and have their temperature checked. All will be required to wear a face mask during their shifts.
Meanwhile, tribal officials are considering its financial future, considering casino profits account for about half of the tribe’s budget. Tribal Secretary of Finance Cory Blankenship said, “The property is optimistic that they can achieve 70 percent,” compared to Caesars’ projection of 30 or 40 percent. Blankenship said the tribe is in a “very fortunate position,” with a financial cushion in place and enough reserves to sustain operations. “But just because we can sustain operations doesn’t mean we cannot plan for how to get through this particular situation,” said Blankenship.
The casinos’ closures will decrease the tribe’s June pre-tax distribution by $450, from $6,309 in June 2019 to $5,589. The per capita loan program also has been suspended.
Jay Dorris, CEO of Wind Creek Casinos, recently issued a statement regarding reopening the Poarch Band of Creek Indians’ casinos in Montgomery, Atmore and Wetumpka, Alabama. Dorris wrote, “It’s been 45 days since we voluntarily closed our doors in response to the Covid-19 outbreak. A very common question heard frequently is “When is Wind Creek going to reopen?”
Dorris responded, “We don’t have a date yet, but I assure you, it will be the very first moment that we can provide guests and team members a fun and exciting experience without taking irresponsible public health risks. Our team is working through many solutions and our plans are coming into focus.”
Dorris said guests will see changes at Wind Creek when it reopens. “Like other businesses, we will be limiting the number of guests, stepping up the frequency and intensity of sanitization and increasing the use of PPE by our team members. We’ve been working diligently for the past few weeks to develop these plans, and we continue to fine tune them based on new data from authorities.”
He noted reopening plans will be published on WindCreekCasino.com and other social media. “And let’s be clear – throughout this process plans change as new information becomes available. So all of us need to be flexible as we work our way through these times,” Dorris wrote.
He said Wind Creek reopenings will be conducted in phases, with a “soft reopening” in which small groups of guests will be invited to the properties “to test out some of our new policies and procedures and ensure that they’ll work on a larger scale. Once we believe we can accommodate more guests, we will reopen to the general public.”
Dorris said the casinos will initiate a reservation system, allowing guests to schedule a day and time in advance “to allow us to always keep the number of guests and team members on property and on the casino floor at a safe number.”
Dorris added changes also will be made in the casinos’ restaurants, spas and fitness facilities, hotels, valet parking, pools, bell service and other entertainment venues.
He concluded, “We will continue to consult with health, regulatory, tribal and commonwealth agencies so we can provide you and our team members the escape and fun environment expected from Wind Creek. Those same authorities are helping inform our decision about the proper time to reopen. When we reopen, our goal is to have a plan that will provide a smart and measured approach to protect the well-being of our team members, guests and surrounding communities.”
Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson said the state’s three casinos will reopen Monday, May 18, complying directives from the Arkansas Department of Health including occupancy limits and new safety rules. The casinos—Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis, Oaklawn Racing Resort in Hot Springs and the Saracen Casino in Pine Bluff—have been closed since March 17 in response to the Covid-19 virus.
Hutchinson said the casinos will be limited to one-third their capacity and will require “stringent” social-distancing requirements. “They have presented proposals as to how they can socially distance in that environment and they can manage the population there,” Hutchinson said.
In addition, all staff and customers will be screened before entering the facility and casino operators are expected to manage lines for entrance, exit, making purchases or for other reasons, to maintain six feet between people.
Officials at Delaware North, owners of Southland Casino Racing, the West Memphis dog track, said in a statement, “Our planning for reopening has been focused on a comprehensive program that features additional ways that we will help keep our guests and employees safe from COVID-19 and provide them peace of mind while they are in our facility.”
Regarding the Saracen Casino, a 900-person annex offering slots and sports betting while the primary casino is under construction in Pine Bluff, Quapaw Nation Chairman John Berrey said, “We are removing chairs to promote social distancing, we’re going to allow 33 percent of the capacity, we are going to make sure all of the customers have masks. We’re going to get a copy of their ID to help track people with the state health department. We’re going to have reduced hours. We are probably not going to open up our convenient store where we serve food.”
Hutchinson added state health officials have been working with each of the casinos to develop health directives, and further more details will be released in the near future.
In Ohio, MGM Northfield Park officials announced the casino will remain closed through August 31, under Governor Mike DeWine’s executive order in response to the Covid-19 virus. The casino’s 937 employees were laid off but officials said those who are enrolled in its health plan will receive benefits through August 31.
In a letter to the Ohio Office of Workforce Development, MGM Northfield Park officials wrote, “Due to our extended closure, the business is anticipated to continue to have a significant decrease in revenue, cancellation and non-booking of hotel, restaurant and entertainment events, as well as significant postponements and cancellations of convention bookings. Our sincere hope continues to remain that this layoff is temporary, but in light of the continuing pandemic and our extended closure, we are unable to say that the layoff may not last more than six months for at least some portion of our employees. ”
The Indiana Gaming Commission recently announced the state’s 13 casinos will remain closed in response to Covid-19 until at least mid-June, in accordance with Phase 4 of Governor Eric Holcomb’s plan to reopen businesses across the state and return the economy to “normal” by July 4—as long as hospitals are not overwhelmed by the anticipated increase in new Covid-19 cases due to the reopenings. Holcomb ordered casinos to close March 16.
In a statement, the IGC said, “Please note that dates in the current plan are subject to change as new information emerges. No reopening dates have been determined at this time, as the decision is dependent upon information that is not yet available.”
In Phase 4, Indiana retailers and offices can reopen to full capacity, restaurants can offer dine-in service at 75 percent capacity, bars and nightclubs can reopen to 50 percent capacity and other cultural, entertainment and tourism businesses can reopen at 50 percent capacity.
Indiana will lose more than $175 million in gaming tax revenue for March, April, May and June.
The Pokagon Band of Potawatomi Indians’ Four Winds Casino in South Bend, which is not subject to state gaming regulations, also will remain closed until further notice.
The Deadwood, South Dakota city commission voted May 11 to allow businesses—including casinos—to reopen, provided they follow federal, state and local requirements to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Prior to the vote, the Deadwood Gaming Association reported March gambling revenue dropped 20 percent compared with March 2019. Thus, with about a dozen casinos reopening, the historic town, which was the last in the U.S. to close its commercial casinos, became the first to reopen.
Mike Rodman, executive director of the Deadwood Gaming Association, said, “There are people slowly coming back to the properties and dealing with the new policies and procedures for social distancing.” He explained gamblers must keep a space the size of two slot machines between them, and table games are limited to up to four players. Also, hand sanitizer stations are found throughout the casino and cleaning and sanitation have been increased. Rodman said table-game staff must wear face masks. Guests do not have to wear them, but many do. Also, tables have been relocated in casino restaurants and bars to maintain social distancing.
Caleb Arceneaux, chief executive officer at Liv Hospitality, owners of Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort, Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort and four Deadwood hotels, said, “We were about 15 percent or 20 percent higher than a typical weekend business, which is significant. Cabin fever’s real, and I think people wanted to get out and experience gaming again.”
Arceneaux added weekend occupancy was running 85 percent to 90 percent, including many out-of-state guests. “I think as we get back to whatever the ‘new normal’ is going to look like, the people are going to be more comfortable coming out, and get over the fear and panic.”
Cadillac Jack’s General Manager David Schneiter said the casino’s 180 employees had returned to work. “A lot of people are excited to come back in,” he said.
Social distancing rules that call for six feet of separation are in effect in bars, restaurants and on gaming floors. Though masks are not generally required, dealers for blackjack and other table games must wear masks, as they cannot maintain the 6-foot distance. And at the tables, only two chairs are available. Two slot machines are shut down between players and cleaning crews place stickers on machines that have been freshly sanitized. Craps and poker are limited to four players.
Last Thursday, when the doors reopened at the Liv Hospitality casinos, Arceneaux said he saw some nervousness and discomfort as customers tried to maintain social distancing. But then, as people pulled up to the slots or cozied up to the craps table at Cadillac Jack’s, they relaxed and smiled, even though some of those smiles were hidden beneath face masks.
Officials of the Hannahville Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula announced the tribe’s Island Resort and Casino, closed since March 21 due to Covid-19, would reopen May 6. But the property remains shuttered, although officials were considering reopening on May 16. Tribal Chairman Kenneth Meshigaud explained what happened.
Meshigaud said prior to the announced date, he reached out to Governor Gretchen Whitman’s office to coordinate the casino’s reopening. The tribe is a sovereign nation and does not have to heed the governor’s executive closure orders. Meshigaud said the tribe planned to increase sanitation procedures and take all customers’ temperature, denying access to anyone registering 100 degrees or more.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office and the Menominee County Prosecutor’s Office wrote back to Meshigaud, stating the tribe has the legal right to reopen, but some employees and customers could be subjected to penalties of up to $1,000 per violation or per day under the executive order.
Meshigaud said, “We got a letter by email on May 5 that told us about the measures the governor had taken to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic in Michigan, such as declaring the state of emergency, stay-at-home orders and explanation of the governor’s authority. The letter told us we should limit our operations, otherwise our enrolled members living off reservation and customers could be cited and subject to civil and criminal penalties.”
He decided to keep the casino closed, he said, because, “I did not want to put our tribal members or non-tribal members in jeopardy of being cited and wanted to consult with our tribal council.”
Non-tribal casinos have been ordered to remain closed through at least May 28. Meshigaud said the Hannahville Indian Community tribal council was discussing its next steps.
On May 1, Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds allowed certain businesses closed in mid-March due to Covid-19 to reopen in 77 counties—but not Iowa’s 19 casinos. Recently she allowed select businesses in the state’s remaining 22 counties to reopen—but again, not casinos, which must remain closed at least until May 27.
Iowa’s casino industry began the fiscal year with a promising start, aided by the launch of legalized sports betting. Now gaming revenue for the first 10 months of the fiscal year has declined 13 percent compared to 2019. Greater losses are projected, even if Reynolds allows casinos to reopen under safety limitations. Iowa Gaming Commission Administrator Brian Ohorilko said, “All 19 casinos have shown a loss and will likely show a loss year over year.” He noted losses range from 7 percent to 20 percent depending on the facility.
In April 2019, Iowa casinos reported adjusted gross receipts of about $123.4 million and paid more than $27.6 million in state taxes. But by April 2020, the casinos, which already had surpassed $1 billion, had zero revenue. Sports betting generated nearly $60 million a month in the fall football and winter basketball seasons—but fell to $1.5 million in handle and $155,331 in receipts as college and pro sports shut down.
Iowa Gaming Association Executive Director Wes Ehrecke said besides the shutdown’s “dramatic, adverse impact to our industry,” it’s causing a ripple effect for Iowa businesses that supply $250 million annually in products and services to casinos and charitable organizations that receive $90 million a year through the state licensing arrangement. In addition, Ehrecke said more than 8,000 casino employees have been temporarily furloughed.
Ehrecke added Iowa casinos are ready to open whenever Reynolds and the commission allow it, with comprehensive protocols and procedures for sanitizing and disinfecting facilities and enabling social distancing in restaurants, gaming floors and hotels.
“We are looking forward to the day that we can get reopened and even if it’s with caveats. We have 19 casinos in Iowa and we expect that we’ll have 19 casinos when this opens up,” Ohorilko said.
While most of Oklahoma’s 130 tribal casinos remained closed due to Covid-19, several have reopened on a limited basis, according to Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Director Sheila Morago.
One of those is the Thunderbird Casino in Norman, where more than 250 people stood in line on May 14 to enter. General Manager Sam Caruso said, “It was time for everyone to get back to work, we were ready to get back to work. It just seemed like the right time to do it. We decided to do what we call a soft opening without a lot of fanfare.”
Caruso said Thunderbird and a sister facility in Norman are operating at one-third capacity. From 10 to 11 a.m. the Norman casino is reserved for guests age 50 and older; it quickly hits its reduced capacity of 250 people. The Shawnee casino has a capacity of about 125 people.
Caruso said Thunderbird wanted to get a jump on the competition in the metro area, which mostly waited until May 15 to reopen, or will reopen later. “We continuously paid our team members throughout our closure. Now that restrictions have been loosened, our whole team was anxious to get back to work,” Caruso said.
At Thunderbird, owned by the Absentee Shawnee Tribe, table games are not open. Guests and employees must have their temperature taken before being allowed to enter, and must wear masks and maintain a distance of six feet. “Every guest that has come in the facility has been very appreciative. They understand and when we tell them to put a mask on they put their mask on,” Caruso said.
He added, “We are taking a lot of things away from people and telling them they can’t do this, can’t do that. So we thought we might as well allow them to smoke. They can just pull their masks to the side while doing it.” One gambler cut a hole through his paper mask to fit a cigar through it, Caruso said.
Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said that tribe’s casinos—including WinStar World Casino and Border Casino, which closed March 16—will remain closed at least through May 29, not May 12 as originally announced. “We are extending these closures as part of our continuing efforts to protect the health and safety of our employees and guests. Many of our employees will continue working from home and we will continue to compensate employees whose positions are inactive as a result of the pandemic,” Anoatubby said.
He added, “When we begin reopening, we plan to implement extensive employee testing and contact tracing to help contain any resurgence of the virus.”
The Cherokee, Choctaw and Muscogee (Creek) Nation casinos also remain closed. Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief David Hill said, “Local health benchmarks do not suggest that now is the time to reopen the casinos.” The Cherokee Nation said it has continued to pay salaries and expenses, costing the tribe $30 million to $40 million a month.
An official of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribe said their six Lucky Star Casinos reopened May 15 with strict social distancing, mask and sanitization requirements. Riverwind Casino and Newcastle Casino and Sac and Fox casinos also announced they would reopen on May 15.
The Missouri Gaming Commission recently announced the state’s 13 casinos, closed since March 17 due to Covid-19, will reopen June 1—not May 15 as originally planned. Commission Chairman Mike Leara said a key factor in deciding to keep the casinos closed for two extra weeks was competition between local governments.
For example, St. Charles County, the locale of Ameristar Casino, will reopen before St. Louis County—potentially giving St. Charles County an advantage.
However, the two St. Louis market casinos located in Illinoiss—Alton Argosy and Casino Queen—have not announced reopening dates. The Casino Queen in particular could be affected when Lumière Place in downtown St. Louis and River City in Lemay reopen.
East St. Louis already was struggling financially prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, but the situation is much worse now since the city is receiving no tax revenue from the Casino Queen, its main source of income which provided $700,000 a year.
East St. Louis officials closed the city hall and adjusted city employees’ work schedules to save money, but layoffs could be imminent. The city still is receiving some income from the casino from last year and before it closed this year but those funds are running low.
Meanwhile, the city joined a coalition of other Illinois riverboat cities that have requested Governor J.B. Pritzker share some federal stimulus money to help make up some casino revenue shortfalls.
Casinos in South Mississippi can start reopening at 8 a.m. on Thursday, May 21, the day before the Memorial Day weekend kicks off, the state Gaming Commission confirmed last week.
At a press conference last Thursday, Governor Tate Reeves said, “I would go ahead and start planning now.”
Casinos will be limited to 50 percent maximum occupancy. Table games will reopen, but special events and tournaments will not resume.
Both slots and table games will both be positioned for maximum safety. Facemasks will be handed out to customers, but they will not be required to wear them. All staff members will be required to wear masks on the job, and will have a temperature screening each day.
Chett Harrison, general manager at Golden Nugget Casino in Biloxi, told the Biloxi Sun-Herald, “Give us the word and give us three to four days, and we’ll be ready.”