Hold My Beer: PA Casinos And Lawmakers Drowning in Confusion About Drinking Rules

Posted By Katie Kohler on March 10, 2021

Some COVID restrictions have started to loosen in Pennsylvania. A limited number of fans can attend Sixers, Flyers and Phillies games. There is no longer a quarantine or negative COVID test needed for visitors returning from out-of-state trips.

But visitors at casinos in Pennsylvania still can not drink alcohol on the gaming floor, purchase alcohol without buying food, or buy an alcoholic drink past 11 p.m.

The rules, which have been in effect since PA casinos started reopening in June, are leaving some parched for answers.

Rules put casinos at disadvantage

On the road to recovery for Pennsylvania’s brick-and-mortar casinos, March could play a key role. The NCAA Conference Championships started and the Big East Tournament, with the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats begins on March 10. The NCAA Tournament, which was cancelled last year, begins on March 18 and culminates with the NCAA championship game on April 5.

The sport’s calendar also features a full slate of NBA and NHL action, with MLB’s opening day on April 1.

St. Patrick’s Day is on March 17 which usually brings various promotions at casinos and an overall “lucky” feeling among customers.

Also, on March 10, the PA Department of Health reported that one million Pennsylvanians are fully vaccinated.

These are some big reasons people should be returning to casinos. However, casinos can’t provide drink service on the gaming floor which puts them at a disadvantage in terms of customer service and slows their path to recovery. It also puts them at a competitive disadvantage with neighboring states, such as New Jersey, where drink service on the gaming floor has returned.

FAQs about drinking at PA casinos

Casinos in the state are currently operating at reduced capacity, mandatory mask wearing for visitors and employees with numerous health and safety measures mandated by the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board. Casinos can also employ additional measures such as temperature screenings.

In Pennsylvania, as part of the COVID-19 mitigation efforts from Governor Tom Wolf and Department of Health:

  • On-premises alcohol consumption is prohibited unless part of a meal
  • Serving alcohol for on-site consumption must end at 11:00 p.m. and all alcoholic beverages must be removed from patrons by midnight.

Casino visitors have questions about the current rules and PlayPennsylvania is answering some FAQs.

What can you drink on the floor at PA casinos?

Soft drinks, water, coffee, and tea.

How can I get alcoholic drinks at a PA casino?

Go to one of the restaurants or bars and order it with a meal.

But wait, why are the rules more strict in Philadelphia?

Philadelphia casinos Rivers Philadelphia and the new Live! Casino Philadelphia have stricter measures due to being subject to additional measures from the City of Philadelphia.

There, you can’t drink anything (no coffee, soda, water, tea) on the casino floor. However, if you travel to any of the state’s other casinos, you can enjoy a non-alcoholic beverage while at the slot machine or table games.

When will drink service resume?

The rules remain in place until COVID mitigation orders are changed by Governor Wolf, says a rep for the PGCB.

What about smoking at PA casinos?

Smoking is currently not permitted at any PA casinos. There are areas set up outside for smoking. At places like Wind Creek, guests do not have to be “re-screened” by a temperature check when they reenter after going to the designated outside area to smoke.

Confusion in the House over drinking rules

At a House Gaming Oversight Committee meeting in late February, various casino operators spilled the tea on the degree to which lack of beverage service hurts operations and limits the number of food service employees who can be brought back to work.

Chris Albrecht, the General Manager of Harrah’s Philadelphia Casino said:

“That (drink service) is certainly an experience that many casino gamblers like to enjoy. When you think through obviously the various seasonal events…March Madness coming up…That’s certainly an experience that would be of value to our industry to be able to help restore some of the revenues we’ve lost during this period.”

Committee Member and Representative Joe Ciresi (D-Montgomery) was puzzled by the claim.

“Wait a minute. If they’re able to do that in Atlantic City, I can’t see why we can’t do that here in Pennsylvania.”

Rep. Tom Mehaffie (R-Dauphin) and Kathy McCracken, Wind Creek Casino’s Executive Vice President and General Manager, also expressed confusion over the restrictions.

“We actually have servers going to the slot and tables to serve like coffee and tea and things like that but not alcohol,” said McCracken.

“But not alcoholic beverages, which…Okay,” replied Mehaffie.

“Which makes it even a little crazier…” said McCracken.

“Yes, it doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?” Mehaffie answered.

Strong words from Rush Street

At the House Gaming Oversight Committee meeting, Bud Green, Assistant General Manager at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, represented parent company Rush Street Gaming and spoke on behalf ofRivers Pittsburgh and Rivers Philadelphia casinos.

Revenues are down 35% for the first six weeks of 2021 compared to the first six weeks of 2020. Employment at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh and Philadelphia is down by more than 35%.

Green said:

“Rivers Philadelphia has been hit harder compared to the other casinos in the state because of additional restrictions placed on them by local authorities on top of the mitigation efforts by the state. There are unrealistic mitigations such as no serving alcoholic drinks on the casino floor, restaurant limitations and closures, and restricted event capacity.

“The decrease in case counts and vaccine rollouts suggest that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still operating at 50 percent capacity with no indication of when full capacity may return, when we can serve drinks on the casino floor, or offer to hold unrestricted events like weddings and trade shows that we’ve held in the past.”

Pandemic hits PA casinos hard

Pennsylvania casinos started to close in mid-March 2020, some voluntarily before being ordered to do so, to slow the spread of coronavirus. Casinos started to reopen in early June and were forced to close again for three weeks in December.

The Allegheny Institute quantified the losses of the state’s casinos during the government shutdown. They estimated that the GTR from 2019 to 2020 would have gone up 2% for slots and 3% table games. They calculated that from March to June, casinos in Pennsylvania missed out on $968.8 million in revenue. It would have meant $424.2 million in tax dollars for the Commonwealth.

Mark Stewart, representing the gaming industry for Eckert Seamans, said during the meeting:

“Land-based casinos suffered slot machine and table game revenue losses of greater than 40%. And those are the main dollars that go to supporting our team members and our business partners as well. And of course since the State would’ve collected over 50 percent of the gross dollars on the majority of those losses, you suffered right along with us.”

Lead image via Dreamstime.

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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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