Casinos in Pennsylvania started closing on March 13 to curb the spread of coronavirus. The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board (PGCB) ordered the remaining casinos to close by March 17 effectively shuttering all twelve of the state’s brick-and-mortar casinos.
The PGCB said, “While the closure of the casinos is temporary, there is no specific indication of when reopening will occur.”
In initial press releases and social media posts announcing closures, some casinos indicated they would be closed for two weeks. However, a pandemic changed those plans.
As of March 25, all 465 commercial casinos in the United States closed. It marks the first time in history all casinos in the country have closed. An estimated 649,000 casino employees lost work due to the shutdown. About 17,000 were PA casino employees.
Many Pennsylvanians stayed home to flatten the curve and slow the number of infections. Other non-essential businesses closed. The shutdown-induced stillness is a stark juxtaposition to the once 24/7 bustle of casinos which are filled with the sounds of slot machines and the outburst of cheers coming from the craps table.
Now, the question is when will casinos in Pennsylvania reopen?
When will PA casinos reopen?
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced construction and online vehicles sales can resume beginning on May 8. He did not mention any possible reopening dates for casinos or racetracks in the Commonwealth.
At the April 29 PGCB monthly meeting, Executive Director Kevin O’Toole said they started the process of 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 okay for casinos to reopen. We hope that day will come fairly soon. Board staff is confident the reopening will coincide with responsible initiatives taken by casino operators and VGT operators. Initiatives that will ensure appropriate social distancing throughout the gaming floor along with other protections that will ensure the cleanliness of gaming equipment, gaming tables, restrooms, cages, counters, point-of-sale locations, or any other locations that patrons and employees access.”
Pennsylvania’s plans for phased reopening
For Pennsylvania, Governor Wolf is following a color-coded three-phase schedule for reopening the state region-by-region. At time of writing, the state is in the red phase.
During a May 1 press conference, Wolf said 24 counties, most of which are in the northwest area of the state and along the the New York State border, can move to the yellow phase on May 8. Of the 24 counties, only Erie is home to a casino (Presque Isle). However, casinos are only approved to open during the green phase, not the yellow phase:
- Yellow phase: “Recreation and health and wellness facilities such as gyms and spas and all entertainment venues, including casinos and theaters, remain closed.”
Decisions to reopen and move forward with phases depend on various factors. A major one is the incidence rate of COVID-19 cases per capita. According to the Commonwealth, a target goal for reopening has been set at having an average of fewer than 50 new confirmed cases per 100,000 reported to the department in the previous 14 days.
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Rachel Levine did not have an estimate for when Philadelphia and the surrounding areas would move to the yellow phase.
“I know it’ll be challenging in the southeast. We don’t know when Philadelphia will be able to go to yellow. We don’t know when the collar counties will. But it’s very important to have hope for the future, and we’ll get there.”
The casinos located in Philadelphia and the surrounding suburbs include Rivers Philadelphia, Harrah’s Philadelphia, Valley Forge Casino, and Parx.
Casinos by county and the coronavirus count
Since Pennsylvania will reopen county-by-county, casinos in certain parts of the state will open before others. Here is a look at each brick-and-mortar casino in Pennsylvania and the total positive COVID-case count to date (5/4) by county.
|Total Positive COVID-19 Cases
|Rivers Casino Philadelphia
|Valley Forge Casino
|Mohegan Sun Pocono
|Wind Creek Casino
|Rivers Casino Pittsburgh
|Mount Airy Casino
|Presque Isle Downs
|Lady Luck Nemacolin
What will casinos look like when they reopen?
Instead of trying to guess when, perhaps the focus should shift to what the casino experience will be like when they open their doors again.
The brick-and-mortar building will look the same on the outside, but things are likely to be much different from your last visit.
The Commonwealth strongly advises people to wear masks outside of their home. Wolf issued an order requiring shoppers at all essential businesses to wear a mask in stores. At a minimum, it would be a fair assumption that masks would be required for entrance to Pennsylvania casinos.
A look at Wynn’s thorough safety plans
Wynn Las Vegas Health and Sanitation Program was developed with three leading public health professionals and fellows of Georgetown and Johns Hopkins Universities. If PA casinos want to copy their homework or players want to get a possible glimpse into what their next visit might look like, here are some key points from the 23-page program.
Employee and guest health
- Thermal cameras at points of entry: Anyone who has a temperature of over 100.0 will be taken for secondary screening. If an employee or guest has a temperature of over 100 they will not be allowed entry.
- A security guard will screen for masks (and provide one if needed) and ask guests to use hand sanitizer.
- Physical distancing: Guests should stand at least six feet away from people not traveling with them.
- Slot machines, restaurant tables and other layouts at the casino will be arranged to enable social distancing.
- Hand sanitizer stations will be placed throughout the property.
- Employees instructed to wash hands or use sanitizer every sixty minutes or after certain activities
- All employees will receive COVID-19 training.
- Employees required to wear a mask
Slots machine operations
- Slot machines will be turned off and/or reconfigured with the chairs removed to allow for physical separation between guests. Casino supervisors and managers will ensure that guests do not congregate around slots.
- Slot attendants to offer to sanitize slots for guests sitting down at a machine
- Slots to be sanitized at least once every four hours
Table Games Operations
- Table games will have chairs removed and every other table will be open. Casino supervisors and managers will ensure that guests do not congregate in groups.
- Supervisors to sanitize table game rails after each guest leaves a game
- Supervisors to sanitize each chair area after each guest leaves a game
- Every other table open
- Three chair/guest maximum per table game
- Four chair/guest maximum per big baccarat table
- Three players maximum on each side of dice tables
Race & Sportsbook Operations
- Supervisors to sanitize race carrels and chairs after each guest
- Ticket writer to sanitize the counter after each guest
- Chairs sanitized hourly
- Supervisor to clean station every hour including phones, computers, all hard surfaces and counters
- Every other betting station open
- Six-foot intervals to be marked for ticket window queues
- Seats, carrels and booths to be reconfigured or removed to allow for physical distancing
Valley Forge Casino first to close in hard-hit Montgomery County
Valley Forge Casino (pictured above) was the first in Pennsylvania to close its doors on March 12. At the time, Montgomery County was considered the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the state. Outside of Philadelphia, Montgomery County has the most positive COVID-19 cases in PA. That means Valley Forge Casino might be one of the last casinos to reopen.
Keith Smith, President and CEO of Boyd Gaming, which operates Valley Forge Casino, discussed plans to reopen during Boyd’s quarterly earnings call. Although he did not mention Valley Forge specifically, Smith spoke in a broad sense about the company’s portfolio which spans ten states. He does expect that when casinos start operating again, it will be at a limited capacity.
“As of today, we do not know when we will be permitted to resume operations and bring our team members back to work. We are currently working with state and local officials across the country to gain a better understanding of when we will be able to reopen and what reopening may look like.
“I think each state will handle it differently, but I think most of the conversations are centered around social distancing, limiting whether it’s a number of people in restaurants, whether it’s every other slot machine or every third slot machine. You have to think of it as limited capacity or limited access into the building, social distancing at bars and anywhere else where people gather. We will have initially fewer people in the building. As time goes on, and we see where this virus goes and what type of vaccines and other immunizations come forward, that will change. How we open these properties will probably not be how they look in the long term, but there will be restricted access or restricted capacity across the board.”
A new normal?
Smith provided some positives in a historically long time of closure for casinos instead of dwelling on the negatives.
He said since Boyd’s casinos are currently closed, the ability to “reengineer” is easier to figure out.
“I think we are certainly hopeful that this isn’t a permanent situation as much as it is an evolving situation and that as the world gets our arms around this COVID-19 issue that we will return to normal, whether that’s later this year or into next year.”
Winds of change
How will one of Pennsylvania’s largest casinos respond? Wind Creek and Parx both have the largest workforce for a casino in Pennsylvania with about 2,300 employees each. Of PA’s twelve casinos, Wind Creek finished second in total revenue in Pennsylvania with $522 million in 2019.
In March, Wind Creek reported $14.6 million in revenue, a jarring 71% decrease from the previous year. To add to the pain, unlike Parx and other casinos, Wind Creek does not have an iGaming offering to bring in some form of revenue during its closure.
The Bethlehem-based casino received approval in February for a new 13-story hotel tower connected to its existing hotel. Construction was scheduled to begin in April but it was stopped due Gov. Wolf’s orders.
Highlights of Wind Creek’s planned expansion:
- 270 new rooms
- 35,200 square feet of meeting space
- A 300,000 square-foot adventure and water park at the existing No. 2 Machine Shop Bethlehem Steel site with a 400 to 450-room hotel adjacent to the adventure park is also planned.
Lehighvalleylive.com reported that every day Wind Creek casino is closed, the city of Bethlehem loses about $26,000.
Phased reopening, gambling reservations
Jay Dorris, Wind Creek’s President and CEO, wrote a letter that laid out reopening plans. To date, it is the most detailed plan for how casino operations will resume in Pennsylvania available to the public or provided to Play Pennsylvania.
There is not a date planned, but Dorris says the team has been working to develop solutions and guests will see changes when they return. The casino plans to increase the frequency and intensity of sanitation along with equipping staff with personal protective equipment. They continue to consult with health, regulatory, Tribal and commonwealth agencies about best practices and possible target dates to return.
“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.”
Wind Creek’s reopening, like the state, will be conducted in phases. Guests should not expect an immediate come-one-come-all grand reopening.
“If the number of questions from our guests is any indication, I am sure demand for the Wind Creek experience will be high when we reopen. While I wish we could safely swing our doors open and invite everyone in all at once, our reopening will be conducted in phases. We will begin with a “soft reopening,” where we will invite small groups of guests to visit our properties to test out some of our new policies and procedures and ensure that they’ll work on a larger scale.”
Expect limited capacity, at first
Once Wind Creek can accommodate more guests, they will open to the general public at reduced capacity. To not “spoil the excitement” of people waiting in line to get in, Wind Creek will offer a new reservation system for visits. Guests can reserve a day and time in advance. Information on how to book appointments will be available soon.
Along with reduced number of guests on the gaming floor, restaurants will have limited capacity to ensure physical distancing. Changes are also being made to self-service areas of food service, retail outlets, and other high-traffic areas throughout the property to ensure safety.
“When we reopen, our goal is to have a plan that will provide a smart and measured approach. It probably won’t be perfect, and it will evolve once put into practice. But just as we erred on the side of caution for the health of our guests and team members when we chose to close before government shutdowns went in place, we will use our own best judgment on when to reopen in order to protect the well-being of our team members, guests and surrounding communities.”
Other Pennsylvania casinos respond
Play Pennsylvania reached out to a number of casinos to ask for comment on plans to resume operations and possible safety measures.
Eric Schippers, Senior Vice President, Public Affairs & Government Relations for Penn National Gaming, said the following:
“The safety and wellbeing of our team members and customers is our top priority. With this in mind, we are working closely with the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board and state and local leaders to develop a comprehensive plan to prepare for the eventual reopening of The Meadows and Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course. We look forward to sharing our new health and safety protocols once they’ve received final approval from the Board.”
Jack Horner, a spokesperson for Rivers Casino Pittsburgh said:
“We’re currently developing a comprehensive reopening plan with details and timing yet to be determined. Rivers Casino will reopen when the state determines that it’s safe to do so. All commercial casinos in the U.S. are presently closed.”
Safety shields a possible solution
Necessity is the mother of invention.
A Las Vegas-based company, Screaming Images, is developing a safety shield that could be used in casinos at table games and slot machines. The clear acrylic dividers can fit various games and are meant to separate players and dealers.
The dividers are currently being tested at El Cortez in downtown Las Vegas. The idea is being pitched to other casinos.
El Cortez general manager Adam Wiesberg commented on Screaming Images principal James Swanson and the safety shield:
“When he reached out about this new technology, and with everything being such an unknown to us and the industry, any new idea that could potentially work to protect employees and customers we’re willing to take a look at.”
Safety goes viral
A video from Joe Bunevith, Director of Interactive Gaming at Synergy Blue, shows him at a blackjack table with a sneeze guard. The 45-second clip was taken at Margaritaville Resort Casino in Bossier City, Louisiana and widely circulated on social media.
Bunevith said to FOX5 Las Vegas:
“We’re at this really strange part where we’re going to have to bring consumers in, the ones that have been with us for a long time, and we also have to drive out some fear of the ones we’re trying to attract. Will it stop the virus? I mean no I think that’s obvious to everyone. Will it stop a direct sneeze on someone? Yeah, very likely so.”