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Headed to a casino this summer? Here’s what to expect.

The El Cortez was one of the first casinos in Las Vegas to use acrylic dividers at the table games. The casino rolled out some measures that will stay in place even after the pandemic resolves. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

An earlier version of this story stated that the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., reopened on July 1, 2020. In fact, it reopened on June 1, 2020. The story has been updated.

It was my turn to shoot, so I leaned over the craps table and scooped up the dice. It felt good; it had been more than a year since I’d been inside a casino. I looked at the expectant faces of my fellow players, channeled all the luck of the past pandemic year into my fist — and someone sprayed Windex in my face.

Okay, it wasn’t actually in my face. It was the cleaning crew working on the other side of the plexiglass separating me from other players. For me, that was a new take on the “cooler,” someone dispatched to interrupt a successful roll, as seen in the William H. Macy movie of that title.

Over the past year, casino staff have been strategizing ways to keep playing fun while enforcing safety measures. Although slot machines provide a solitary gambling experience, table games like craps are communal endeavors in which everyone’s financial success is intermixed, and thus everyone roots together, cheering good rolls — or falling into glum silence or a dispirited roar when the shooter sevens out. So can the game continue when players are separated by plexiglass dividers, and masks hide smiles? Absolutely, yes.

As a vaccinated individual, I braved the wilds of the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino in Reno, Nev., in early April to see how pandemic measures have affected the gambling life. This prototype of Vegas’s MGM Grand, now owned by the Meruelo Group, was then thriving, with its 50-lane bowling alley (open), two-screen movie theater (open) and 2,700-seat theater (open for pod-based, masked seating). More recently, masks and social distancing have become optional for vaccinated individuals. The hot tubs remain closed for covid restrictions, but otherwise business is back with nary a shrug — with a healthy dose of sanitizing and disinfecting.

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At the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, Miss., the tallest building in the state, employees have been used to sudden closures from hurricanes; Katrina shut the facility down for a year. So the March 17, 2020, covid-19 closure wasn’t entirely a new situation. “But this was different because of the precautions we had to take,” says Thembi Morris, a dealer with 22 years of experience who was pulled off a dice game for our interview. He’s been with the Beau Rivage since Day 1 in 1999; he calls craps “the best roller coaster in our amusement park.” He mentioned that each employee had to be rehired and undergo temperature checks and a brief covid training. “It was reassuring. Other casinos didn’t go to these measures.”

Morris is a member of the casino’s “toke committee” (toke is industry lingo for the pool of tips employees share). The committee voted that if dealers tested positive, they would still be paid tips for two weeks “to encourage them to stay home,” he says. One or two dealers did get covid, he says, and benefited from the policy.

“I thought that it would be slow to begin with when we reopened,” he says, referring to the June 1, 2020, reopening, “but we’ve been busy the entire time.”

In Las Vegas, the El Cortez Hotel & Casino, a grande dame since 1941, rolled out some measures that will stay in place even after the pandemic resolves. “When we closed in March [2020], we knew right away it would be a long closure. We all knew that it was really scary to a lot of people regardless of where it was headed,” General Manager Adam Wiesberg says. He notes that because the casino is family-owned, “there was no corporation to go through” to get permission to make dramatic changes: “We redesigned the whole floor.”

From 1,400 slot machines, the El Cortez went down to 700 to satisfy distancing regulations. “In the old way, you’d have eight machines with their backs and sides touching each other in a long bank,” Wiesberg says. “We put them in a big circle with open space in the middle, curved away from each other.”

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Despite fewer machines, business was up once the casino reopened June 4, 2020. “The industry always knew the games on the end did better,” he says, likening them to aisle seats on an airplane. He has no plans to bring back the old arrangement. “People love that space,” he says. “The slots all perform better and get more time of play.”

The El Cortez was one of the first casinos in Las Vegas to use acrylic dividers at the table games. Wiesberg worked with a designer in spring 2020. “We sat in the chairs at the blackjack table with cardboard to see how high the dividers would have to be,” he says. “For us, it wasn’t just business and finance, it was life and death.”

Mask enforcement was “one of the biggest challenges we faced as operators,” he says. “People with political views one way or another started arguments with security guards or myself enforcing the state-mandated decision. It created a lot of confrontations.” He says they had to kick a small percentage of people out, but as the weeks went along, it got easier. “We set up security observation points, including surveillance. As you walked across the property, three or four times you’d be told to pull up your mask,” he says.

The El Cortez is on its sixth 55-gallon barrel of hand sanitizer, and gave away masks in the hundreds of thousands. “You could just tell people were grateful we had done the work to be open,” Wiesberg says. The hand sanitizer stations, like the circular slot banks, will stick around. “One of the good things of this year was people’s acceptance and cooperation with these crazy new rules. Most took it in stride, which was encouraging to me.”

Known for its collection of historical coin machines with wheels that spin and classic pull handles, the casino brings in fans who choose history over the Strip. “We’ve kept the classic machines as a novelty to tourists from all over the world. Everyone wants authenticity, especially millennials,” says Wiesberg. Because the El Cortez is a smaller property where some people have been coming for 40 years, he’s on a first-name basis with hundreds of daily players.

“We have our finger on the pulse of the mood of the players,” Wiesberg says. “We live on the floor with them.”

At the Golden Nugget in Lake Charles, La., senior director of table games Thuy Hoang says: “Basically, covid-19 was just unprecedented, something the hospitality industry has never seen before. We would have never thought we’d have to sanitize everything daily like this before.”

The plexiglass barriers seemed strange in the beginning, but she says that “after the first few days, it became the new normal. We used to have those high-five interactions; they do an ‘air-five’ now.” The facility closed from March through May 2020, and Hoang tested positive for the coronavirus. “I caught it, but not from the casino,” she says. Her case was mild, with a few days of coughing and fatigue, and she was back to work after 10 days’ quarantine. “This spring, we’ve seen people returning with more and more travelers coming from across the country,” she says. “People are anxious to come.”

At the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City, a “Clean Team” in lime green shirts provided visible proof of disinfecting precautions. “You couldn’t walk 10 feet through the casino without seeing one of these team members,” says President Joe Lupo.

“We invested in some of the most advanced thermal imaging where you didn’t even have to stop walking, and you saw your own image with your temperature over your head,” he says. “It immediately created a level of assurance of who was coming in the door.”

Hotel doors were taped off after cleaning to assure guests that no one had been inside since, and seats at table games were reduced. “Pre-covid, you could probably snuggle 12 to 14 people at a big craps table. Now it’s eight to 10.” At the roulette table, only four could play, and people were not allowed to stand while drinking. “Holding a drink, standing behind someone playing, and talking to your mate while waiting for a game: That socializing aspect has been what’s limited,” Lupo says. He notes that at one point, New Jersey had the highest per capita rate of covid-19 transmission and appreciates the governor’s stringent stance. “We rebounded faster because of the measures we took. . . . People wanted to come to the Jersey Shore and enjoy themselves. You have one opportunity to make the customer feel safe.”

Mailman is a writer based in Northern California. Find her on Twitter: @ErikaMailman.

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