Slots, Craps And Masks: Casinos Begin Reopening, But When Will PA Follow?

Posted on May 14, 2020

Pennsylvania’s 12 casinos have been closed for about two months to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The Keystone State is following a three-phase, color-coded reopening plan. Thirty-seven counties will be in the “yellow phase” by May 15, but casinos cannot begin to welcome back guests until the “green phase.”

The casinos in the yellow phase (and their counties) are:

  • Presque Isle Downs (Erie)
  • Rivers Casino Pittsburgh (Allegheny)
  • Lady Luck Nemacolin (Fayette)
  • The Meadows (Washington)

Does this mean they will be the first casinos in Pennsylvania to reopen? Like most things surrounding coronavirus, no one knows for sure, and there is no target date.

The coronavirus closed all 989 commercial and tribal casinos in the United States for the first time. The shutdown affects 652,000 casino and resort employees across the country and 17,000 casino employees in Pennsylvania.

However, some bright spots are emerging as casinos begin to reopen.

Mostly tribal casinos open

As of May 13, 23 casinos have opened their doors again, according to the American Gaming Association. The majority are tribal casinos in Oklahoma.

On May 12, the US News and World Report said hundreds of patrons lined up to enter the Thunderbird Casino in Norman, OK. The casino implemented social distancing, sanitation safeguards and limited entry to about 200 people, which is about one-third of capacity.

South Dakota casinos welcome eager guests

According to CNBC, 11 casinos in Deadwood, SD, were among the first to open and guests were eager to return. Occupancy was between 85%-90%, with many people driving in from surrounding states.

Caleb Arceneaux, the CEO of Liv Hospitality, is part of a family business that owns and operates Tin Lizzie Gaming Resort, Cadillac Jack’s Gaming Resort and four hotels in Deadwood. Arceneaux told CNBC:

“We were about 15% or 20% higher than a typical weekend business, which is significant. Cabin fever’s real, and I think people wanted to get out and experience, you know, gaming again. 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.”

At the South Dakota gaming resorts, social distancing rules of six feet were in effect. Guests do not have to wear masks, but dealers for blackjack and table game wear masks since they cannot maintain a six-foot distance.

Other changes include:

  • Two slot machines shut down between players.
  • Stickers to indicate freshly sanitized slot machines.
  • Craps and poker limited to four players.

Louisiana casinos get rolling next week

In terms of total gaming revenue in 2018, Louisiana ranked fifth behind Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York.

Louisiana plans to reopen casinos on May 18; however, it is subject to state police approval. Should they receive the go-ahead, it will provide an early look at how a larger gaming market will look after long COVID-19 closures.

Gaming experts give a glimpse of future

At this week’s ICE North America Digital online conference, various panels discussed the future of brick-and-mortar casinos and possible changes.

Simon Holliday, the founder of H2 Gambling Capital, said he expects to see an initial surge for land-based properties due to demand but urges caution long-term.

“Don’t be fooled; it’s a minority of people. I think, in the longer term, more people will be hesitant to go to public spaces rather than those that have travel restrictions. It could take years, if ever, we get back to the same type of air travel. If you are farther away from your customer, that is going to have an impact.”

This would bode well for Pennsylvania’s casinos that are commuter-friendly. Philadelphia is within a day’s drive of 40% of the US population.

Kelley Tucky, the owner of Ithos Strategic Communications, believes that preparations to reopen must be employee-centric to start.

“Guests are watching how you treat your employees. If a guest feels employees’ concerns are not being heard, then they will make the determination if they are going to reconnect with you. Safety and security are No. 1.”

Recovery rates

Michael Soll, the president of the Innovation Group, laid out what recovery rates could look like starting in May over the course of a 12-month period:

  • 60% to 80% without social distancing measures
  • 35% to mid-60% with social distancing measures (roughly three out of five betting positions filled)
  • High 20% to low 30% in the northeastern states (since it has been hardest hit by COVID-19)

When will casinos in Pennsylvania reopen?

During the most recent Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting on April 29, Executive Director Kevin O’Toole said they started discussing with casino operators their plans for the eventual reopening of land-based casino facilities.

“There is an anxiousness among all of our staff to continue the process toward reopening land-based casinos as well as VGT gaming at approved truck stops. At this time, we do not know specifically when state and local government, in consultation with health experts, will give the OK for casinos to reopen. We hope that day will come fairly soon.”

Wind Creek Casino indicated that when they do reopen, they will be implementing a reservation system.

PlayPennsylvania provides weekly updates on the state of casinos across Pennsylvania here. As land-based gambling establishments remain shuttered, PA online casinos continue to flourish.

Lead image credit: CNBC
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Katie Kohler

Katie Kohler is a Philadelphia-area based award-winning journalist. She covers the Pennsylvania gambling industry with an emphasis on sports betting, online casino/poker and the lottery.

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