On March 12, I went to the grocery store in the morning with a list and an impending sense of doom.
Six days earlier, Pennsylvania had reported its first case of coronavirus.
My bill kept creeping higher with each ding of the scanner as my serotonin levels sank.
Later that day, I drove a few minutes to nearby Valley Forge Casino. I played a couple of hands of blackjack, had a drink at the bar and watched the scene unfold around me like it had before at this casino and all the others: the players sitting elbow to elbow at the blackjack table, the cheers and jeers coming from the craps area, the constant motion of people and the sounds of slot machines throughout the floor.
Then it all stopped.
Sorry, folks, casinos are closed; Tom Wolf should have told ya
When casinos in Pennsylvania announced their closure to slow the spread of coronavirus, it was only supposed to be for two weeks. But novel viruses don’t give a shit about timelines.
For me, the next few months were filled with work, Netflix, new recipes, long walks around the neighborhood and FaceTime. I cleaned, cried, cooked and prayed so much that I gained a deeper understanding of my Italian grandmothers.
I wouldn’t return to a casino until about three months later.
PA casino road trip
The first casinos in Pennsylvania reopened on June 9, and I was ready for a road trip. From my home in Montgomery County, it would take me about five hours to get to Rivers Casino Pittsburgh.
My only adventures over the past few months had consisted of picking up curbside takeout and Target orders. What would it be like to slip the short leash of my hometown and go back out again? I really didn’t want to make the trip in one day. Was staying in a hotel safe?
About two hours into the journey on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I paused at a rest stop. Only the Burger King, gas station and convenience store were open. Most of the tables were caution-taped off. I made a beeline to the bathroom.
Of course, my bladder couldn’t make the trip with only one stop. So I stopped at Sheetz (the western PA Wawa equivalent) twice. Both times, the mask-wearing among the customers was less than compliant.
First, I checked in at the DoubleTree in downtown Pittsburgh. There was a jug of hand sanitizer at the entrance, and the hotel agent was behind a glass partition and wearing a mask (with a sign reminding guests to wear masks). No one was in the lobby except some staff pushing carts and cleaning.
When I opened the door to my room, the odor of commercial cleaner filled my nostrils and made me a little dizzy. Then I proceeded to do my check-in ritual of wiping down the high-touchpoint things (doorknobs, remote controls, switches, counters) and making a sweep for serial killers (check under the bed, in the shower and closets.). I was OCD way before COVID-19.
At the media preview on Monday at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, general manager Bill Keena talked about safety measures and the 1,000 employees returning to work. He looked tired. He looked tired in the way that so many others are. Tired from navigating a first-of-its-kind storm with no map and spending the last three months simply waiting since so much is out of your hands.
A casino with no players looks and sounds abnormal. The machines are plugged in again, but without the players, there is no real electricity, let alone vibe.
“What you are seeing now is completely different than two weeks ago,” said Keena. “Imagine the same place but with all the machines and signs turned off. It was dark and eerie. It was surreal. We are ready to get back.”
What is it like at casinos now?
The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board laid out COVID-19-related guidelines that every casino in the state must follow.
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 at first
- Hand sanitizer and sanitizing wipes available throughout the gaming floor.
When I arrived at Rivers Casino Pittsburgh close to noon on Tuesday, there were employees at the elevator entrance in the garage and upon arrival on the floor, monitoring visitor count as well as mask compliance.
All of the employees were wearing masks, and it appeared that most of them had opted for a protective face shield.
For a Tuesday, the bartender told me, it was busier than normal, and it certainly appeared that way. Players of all ages, from mid-20-somethings to silver-haired seniors with oxygen tanks, kept their social distance, and aside from when they were taking sips of their drinks, kept their masks on.
At The Meadows, a similar crowd occupied the floor. The sentiment among the patrons I talked to at both casinos was similar. The visitors at the casinos on Tuesday were regulars returning to a place they often visited and really missed. They were simply tired of staying home and only going out to go to the grocery store.
“It’s just good to have fun again,” said a woman who arrived at The Meadows when it opened its doors. “I’ve been so bored.”
Do I have the coronavirus?
That’s what you’re thinking, isn’t it?
During the course of the trip, from Monday morning to returning home on Tuesday night, I assumed the risk of exposure. I did what I could to take protective measures (packed a 7.5 oz pump of hand sanitizer in my purse, carried disinfectant wipes and kept a social distance wherever I went.)
Of course, the thought of “Am I going to catch the coronavirus?” popped into my head during the trip because, due to the events of the past three months, it’s pretty hard for anyone, let alone someone with an anxiety disorder, to not let that thought pop into your head.
It’s been eight days since the trip, and I have no symptoms yet.
I’m not a doctor, and I don’t know your pre-existing conditions, so by no means should you take this as medical advice in any form. Whether or not you return to casinos depends on if you think it’s safe for you, and you should assume that any activity outside of your home comes with some risk for contacting the coronavirus, among other things.
I can tell you that the two casinos I went to were the cleanest I’ve ever seen, which is to be expected after being closed for over 80 days. However, with a steady presence of environmental service staff and middle-of-the-night closed hours for deep cleaning, I expect them to keep a high standard of cleanliness.
It might have been their first day open, and people are eager to have fun again, but for now, cleanliness and safety are the amenities everyone expects.