The Wait Is Over: First Casinos Now Open In Pennsylvania, And They Didn’t Disappoint

Posted on June 10, 2020 - Last Updated on August 25, 2020

The pair of ladies admitted they are more partners-in-crime than sisters-in-law. They have their fair share of newly empty nest suburban fun and keep their calendar full of things to-do.

As Catholics, they give up something each year for Lent. Every March on Ash Wednesday, Mary Jo and Terri, residents of West Mifflin, both sacrifice one of their favorite activities – visiting Rivers Casino Pittsburgh.

Rivers Casino Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania’s other 11 brick-and-mortar casinos closed in mid-March to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Casinos in PA and across the country paused operations for an unprecedented period of time.

“We’ve been counting down the days,” said Terri.

Counting the days to PA casino reopenings

Allegheny County, home of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh reached the green phase of the state’s three-tiered plan on June 5 that allows casinos to reopen. On June 9, with new safety protocols including social distancing, more sanitizing stations, and increased cleaning, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh was the first in the state (along with The Meadows) to welcome back guests.

“We got here around 8 a.m. We were so excited and ready to come back,” commented Mary Jo.

The pair, wearing colorful printed masks, headed right for Stinkin’ Rich, their favorite slot.

“We aren’t going to give up coming here next year,” said Mary Jo. “It was over eighty days. So that’s like two Lents.”

“See, I told you we’ve been counting the days,” added Terri.

New protocols in place

Temperatures started creeping toward ninety degrees by late morning on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Inside it was, “a little bit busier than a normal crowd for a Tuesday,” said one bartender.

“It’s gotten busier every hour since we opened,” the bartender said as another staffer wiped down parts of the bar. One thousand Rivers Casino Pittsburgh employees were called back to work upon news of resuming operations.

Before a casino can reopen, they need to “met or exceed” the new Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board COVID-19 Casino Reopening Protocols.

Key points of the PGCB guidelines for all casinos include:

  • Gaming floor limited to 50% capacity
  • Guests and employees must wear masks
  • No poker rooms to start
  • Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes available throughout the gaming floor

PGCB Director of Communication Doug Harbach said poker rooms present a different type of challenge since people are sitting close together in a room.

“The casinos want to walk before they run and make sure they are getting the venue open and then move on to opening up other areas once they know the protocols are working well.”

Rivers Casino Pittsburgh reopening day

The day before Rivers Pittsburgh officially restarted operations, General Manager Bill Keena led media through a tour of the empty casino.

“What you are seeing now is completely different than two weeks ago. Imagine the same place but with all the machines and signs turned off. It was dark. It was eerie and surreal. We are ready to get back.”

On Tuesday, guests were greeted with increased signage informing them of new safety guidelines. Then they reacquainted themselves with socially distanced table games and slots. (Images courtesy of Rivers Casino.)

Four spots were open at roulette tables. Three spots open at blackjack tables, with 12 tables added in the poker room to accommodate more players. Every other chair was removed in the slot areas and there were six spots at craps.

To start, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh will not operate 24/7. The new hours allow for deep cleaning.

The updated hours are:

  • Weekdays: 9 a.m. – 4 a.m.
  • Friday: 9 a.m. through Monday at 4 a.m.

A new initiative, “Rivers Clean,” represents a rigorous property-wide cleaning and disinfectant program to help stop the spread of coronavirus. Prior to reopening, the property underwent a deep cleaning which included sanitizing 2,608 slot machines and 220,000 chips.

Keena commented on the always-on operations of casinos taking a pause:

“It’s new for all. We are all going to be learning as we go along. I’ve been in this business for a long time and have never been faced with anything like this. We have worked so closely with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board who have been so good through all of this. We may need to change it after a week. The reason we picked it is they are our slowest hours. If the business and demand is there, we will revert back to 24/7.”

New protocols:

  • Fuchsia is the color of clean. Fuchsia (a.k.a. pink) indicates signage directing guests to the 140 new hand sanitizing stations and disinfectant wipes. Also, members of the Rivers Clean team sport the shirts.
  • If you have gaming chips from prior visits, bring to cashier to be exchanged before sitting down at a table game.
  • No eating or smoking at live table games.
  • Prior to sitting at a live table, all guests must use hand sanitizer.

The Meadows opens doors, too

The Meadows Racetrack and Casino also opened their doors to guests on June 9. The crowd at The Meadows seemed similar to the one at Rivers Pittsburgh in terms of demographics – mid-twenty-somethings to octogenarians, some of whom were toting oxygen tanks.

According to the American Gaming Association, 581 of the United State’s 989 reopened were open as of Tuesday.

Kevin Brogan, Vice President of Marketing at The Meadows said:

“In following casinos in other states, there certainly appears to be some pent-up demand during the re-opening phase, which we would expect to see in Pennsylvania as well.”

There were bulldozers doing some work on the racetrack but no horses on Tuesday afternoon as horse racing remained suspended throughout the state. Brogan said they are actively working with the PHRC and MSOA on a return to Live Racing and hope to release a new schedule soon. The Racebook was open and simulcast wagering will be available during limited hours.

Phillip from Washington County sat at a table in the food court overlooking the racetrack on Tuesday afternoon sipping a coffee. A seventy-something slot player, he’s a regular at The Meadows and got there as soon as they opened.

“Don’t tell my kids, they worry about me. I’ve been cooped up for too long. I wanted to get out and do something.”

Phillip believes the length of time casinos have been closed is appropriate and doesn’t mind wearing a mask. He admitted he was a bit surprised The Meadows was not conducting temperature checks (neither was Rivers).

“It’s good to be back. I’ll be here this weekend. I have money to play with since I haven’t been here for months.”

The Meadows updated health and safety plan

Like Rivers Pittsburgh, for starters, The Meadows will not operate 24/7 and their hours are 8 a.m. – 3 a.m daily.

The Meadows requires visitors and employees to wear masks and limit the gaming floor to 50% capacity. (Images courtesy of The Meadows.)

Some new things you might notice on your next trip:

  • Floor decals to enforce social distancing.
  • More hand sanitizing stations.
  • Table game seating will be limited, and slot machines configured to meet social distancing requirements.

Commented Brogan on the increased cleaning efforts:

“We will utilize a fog machine on a daily basis which allows us to disinfect the entire casino floor regularly.  We have temporarily adjusted our table games experience which includes no smoking, limited seating, and drink service in sealable containers.  Finally, we have been able to provide our slot customers a significant number of themes by installing plexiglass dividers between some of our most popular games.”

Table game minimums at PA casinos

Some table game players fear that since casinos have been closed for over three months, and spaces are limited, that minimums will be higher.

On Tuesday at Rivers Pittsburgh the minimum for blackjack, roulette, and craps was $15. At The Meadows the blackjack minimum was $15 and craps was $10.

Said Brogan on table minimums:

“Table minimums are something we have the ability to adjust based on demand.  Initially, you’ll see lower minimums at our stadium gaming product where we are able to accommodate a larger number of players with a single dealer. As we better understand volumes over the coming weeks, we will continue to asses and operate with appropriate limit levels to best serve our guests.”

A man with a close-cropped cropped haircut, gym shorts and a Pittsburgh Steelers tee-shirt hung his head at the craps table. Another player tossed the dice.

Seven out.

The Steelers fan hung his head for a second then it bounced right up.

“I’m down $200 and I don’t even care. I’m just so happy to be back. It’s been too long.”

PGCB weighs in on reopenings

During Tuesday’s monthly Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board meeting, Executive Director Kevin O’Toole commented yesterday’s reopenings went “very well.” He added that they expect all casino locations to reach the green phase of the reopening process “in the weeks to come.” Lady Luck Nemacolin opens on Friday at 10 a.m.

O’Toole spoke with the general managers of the The Meadows and Rivers Pittsburgh about their first day back.

“The daily cleaning regimens have been ramped up significantly. I’ve spoken to the general managers of both casinos and they’re very pleased with how the reopenings occurred. Customers have been very respectful and compliant of the new requirements. The managers were pleased with the patronage recognizing they were keeping it in within capacity limits.”

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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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