Fri-Yay! Valley Forge Casino, Harrah’s Philly and Presque Isle Downs Reopen

Written By Katie Kohler on June 26, 2020 - Last Updated on September 20, 2023

The first casinos in populous southeastern Pennsylvania reopened on Friday.

A steady stream of visitors filed into Harrah’s Casino Philadelphia at 9 a.m. Valley Forge Casino, the first casino in the state to close on March 12, resumed operations on Friday at 11 a.m.

Presque Isle Downs & Casino in Erie also welcomed back guests.

Parx and Wind Creek Bethlehem open on Monday, June 29. Rivers Casino Philadelphia remains the only casino in the state still closed since Philadelphia is opting for a slower transition to the “green” phase.

New health and safety guidelines for all PA casinos

All 12 of the state’s casinos closed by mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus. Rivers Casino Pittsburgh and The Meadows were the first to resume operations on June 9.

Per the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB), all casinos in the state must follow COVID-19 Casino Reopening Protocols, which detail the minimum safety and health-related requirements that are mandatory before reopening.

Key points include:

  • Casinos can reopen at 50% capacity
  • Employees and guests must wear masks
  • Markings on the floor to promote social distancing
  • Enhanced cleaning throughout the facility
  • Poker rooms are not authorized to operate due to players’ handling of cards and chips. Poker room operations will be re-examined based on changes to the CDC and PA Department of Health guidance
  • Limited positions at each table to allow for physical distancing
    o Three players per blackjack/pai gow/carnival game table
    o Four players per roulette table
    o Six players per craps table

Casinos can also add additional safety measures.

Harrah’s says hello again

A steady stream of mask-wearing guests filed onto the gaming floor at Harrah’s Casino Philadelphia on Friday morning. But first, they weaved their way through a queue, stood on a floor marker and looked straight ahead for a thermal temperature scan.

“After over 100 days of closure, we are thrilled to welcome guests back to Harrah’s Philadelphia,” said Harrah’s Philadelphia SVP and General Manager Chris Albrecht. “We are focused on the well-being of team members, guests and the community, and are striving to create enjoyable experiences that emphasize sanitation and physical distancing practices.”

In accordance with PGCB regulations, guests are required to wear masks, social distancing measures are in place and the casino is limited to 50% capacity.

New things to know before you go to Harrah’s Casino Philadelphia:

  • The property will be open 24/7.
  • The poker room, sportsbook and Top Golf will be temporarily closed until further notice. Kiosks will be available for sports wagering.
  • The Racetrack at Harrah’s Philadelphia is open but without spectators until further notice.

Yes, the casino is open

“Are they really open?” asked Mike Pitsone in the Harrah’s Philadelphia parking lot. “Do they really have table games?”

Pistone is a regular at Harrah’s and Delaware Park Casino in Wilmington. He prefers the properties because he likes to bet on horse racing, but was a bit miffed when Delaware Park resumed operations a few weeks ago without table games.

“I understand no spectators in the stands for horse races. I’m just glad that’s back, so I’ll take it. But I’ve been really wanting to play blackjack.”

He’s expecting more of the people he watches the races with to join him at the casino soon.

“We’re retired and bored. Then this happened,” he says referring to coronavirus, “and we are really bored.”

Boyd’s Valley Forge Casino bounces back

Valley Forge Casino Resort’s Vice President and General Manager David Zerfing gave an exclusive interview to PlayPennsylvania. Following Friday’s reopening, the Valley Forge Casino will be open from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m., Sunday through Thursday, and 10 a.m. to 3 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Boyd Gaming, which owns and operates Valley Forge Casino, has closed casinos before since they have some properties on the Gulf Coast. However, it’s never been for this long. Valley Forge was the first Boyd Gaming property that closed. What has this been like?

Zerfing: We are familiar with the process for closures for a hurricane. It reopens a few days later. We’ve never dealt with closures of this length and on a nationwide basis which included all 29 of our casinos. It happened very quickly and has been a very long wait. We are excited to get Valley Forge back open. It will be our 25th property to reopen since mid-May.

Can casinos be profitable after COVID closures?

Valley Forge was doing really well in terms of slot revenue. Coronavirus threw a wrench in everything. Do you expect the casino to continue to be profitable?

Zerfing: It’s tough to predict anything in this environment. Based on what we have seen with properties in other states, we have seen encouraging results. We are seeing good visitation numbers and our customers coming back—certainly not at the levels you saw before the pandemic, but it’s encouraging. We’ve seen a lot of pent-up demand and customers eager to return. We are off to a good start and cautiously optimistic about our prospects at Valley Forge. Valley Forge has been a very successful property for our company. It’s been doing extremely well since its recent expansion.

Capacity limit challenges

Valley Forge is one of the smaller casinos in Pennsylvania. Since casinos can only operate at 50% capacity, how much of a challenge does that present?

Zerfing: In order to have social distancing, we will be turning off half of our slot machines and table games won’t have as many positions. We understand why it’s necessary. Our top priority is the health and safety of our customers, team members and community.

We have been recalling team members and are still in the process of doing that. It will not be all of them, because business volume will be lower and amenities are limited. But we are happy to bring back as many as we can and get back to business and see if there is the opportunity to recall more.

A new normal for casinos

How do Boyd Gaming and Valley Forge Casino move forward after such a long period of closure?

Zerfing: We know that the first thing we have to get right is the health and safety protocols. We’ve implemented Boyd Clean, our nationwide health and safety protocols. It includes things like enforcing social distancing, aggressive sanitation schedules, especially for high-touch surfaces, and wearing face masks. All of our employees wear face masks and, in Pennsylvania, all the customers do too.

Also, before every employee returned to work at Valley Forge, they were tested for COVID-19. Getting all of those things right helps to get people comfortable with returning. We understand because of the things we are doing, the experience has changed and there will be some inconveniences. It requires us to make sure we are extra-focused on getting the rest of the customer experience right. We have to continue to make customers feel welcome and eager to come back even with the restrictions.

Ready to have fun

Despite the last few months, you sound upbeat. Why the positivity?

Zerfing: The common theme I keep hearing is family and friends are coming back. Our casino is catered to locals and regulars. It’s a happy moment. We are looking forward to it. The situation will evolve and develop and, hopefully, we will be able to relax some of those restrictions as conditions become safer. After all that’s happened in the last couple months, the best thing we can do is offer people a place to have some fun.

Higher table minimums but not tightening up the slot machines

Some feel that because of the reduced betting positions at table games and the fact that the casinos have been closed for over a hundred days, table game minimums will go up, slots will get tighter and there will be no winners. 

Zerfing: Table minimums will probably increase at Valley Forge. At other properties around the country, we have increased minimums. In terms of slot machines, we love jackpots because it gets people in the door. The worst thing we can do right now is tighten up the slot machines. We want to have a big winner within the first hour we are open. We like the big winners because it draws people to the property. We want more winners, not less. It’s what gets people back in the door.

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Katie Kohler

Katie Kohler is a Philadelphia-area based award-winning journalist and Managing Editor at PlayPennsylvania. Katie especially enjoys creating unique content and on-the-ground reporting in PA. She is focused on creating valuable, timely content about casinos and sports betting for readers. Katie has covered the legal Pennsylvania gambling industry for Catena Media since 2019.

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