“I said I would come in and if it didn’t feel safe I would leave, but it’s been exactly what they told me,” Hashimi, 35, said as she played the Mayan Chief: Empowered Reel of Itzamna video slot machine on the casino’s 125,000- square-foot main floor.
Wearing the extra protective gear made her feel more safe, but Hashimi said many of her friends had still told her not to go.
“I told them I’d try it out. I guess I’m like the guinea pig,” she said with a muffled laugh.
For months, would-be gamblers have been told to stay home, avoid congregating indoors, refrain from unessential activity and keep from touching things other people have touched. But when Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan (R) moved the state into Phase 2 of its reopening plan earlier this month, casinos were given the green light to welcome customers who are now in a position to do many of those things that were once off-limits.
There are firm rules in place, of course. Everyone must wear masks. Capacity is limited to 50 percent. Temperatures are checked. Hand sanitizer is everywhere. But will the gamblers come back? In Maryland, it’s a billion-dollar-plus question.
Casino operators at MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County and Live Casino and Hotel in Anne Arundel County hope there are lots of others like Hashimi out there ready to return. The state’s two top revenue-producing casinos, as well as Horseshoe Casino in Baltimore, which reopened Sunday, spent much of the shutdown retrofitting their casino floors and developing new plans to protect customers and employees as the card dealing, dice throwing and slot spinning returns. The state’s three other smaller casinos opened earlier this month.
First, visitors must walk past thermal scanners that look like radar guns for a temperature check before entering the casinos. Once inside, steps have been taken to minimize contact between gamblers. The number of chairs at all game tables have been reduced. Plexiglas shields have been installed to separate players from dealers and one another. And in the banks of slot machines some have been disabled to keep distance between players. Chairs, counters, slot machines and other high-touch areas will be wiped down again and again and again, casino operators say.
In addition to changes to casino floors, most of the Maryland venues have halted valet service and limited seating in restaurants and bars to ensure social distancing. Theaters at the casinos remain closed.
The new safety measures are the only reason Juliana and Joseph Billiams said they were comfortable visiting the casino. The Staunton, Va., couple, who wore matching gambling-themed masks they bought on Etsy, have been making recent road trips to casinos in Connecticut, West Virginia and North Carolina to play slots. The precautions in place at MGM were better than most of the other casinos they had visited, said Joseph Billiams, 40.
The couple arrived early Monday to avoid any crowds, said Juliana Billiams, 35, who works as a traveling ultrasound technician and has tested many patients sickened by the novel coronavirus. She wasn’t about to take too many chances.
“If we see anything that makes us uncomfortable, we’ll walk out,” she said.
The economic fallout of Maryland’s casino shutdown has been sharply felt. More than 7,000 full- and part-time employees were forced to stay home, and revenue dropped significantly. From July 2019, the beginning of the current fiscal year, until February, the combined revenue from Maryland’s six casinos was about $147 million per month, according to information provided by the Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency. When casinos were shut down on March 16, total revenue for the month dropped to $69 million.
The state’s share of gambling revenue has dropped accordingly. Taxes on casino earnings during the same period brought Maryland close to $61 million monthly, the agency said. That too disappeared altogether in mid-March. For the fiscal year ending this month, the amount casinos will pay the state is down $149 million from the previous year.
The bulk of casino tax revenue is directed to the Maryland Education Trust Fund and local initiatives in communities where the casinos are located.
The state’s three smaller casinos, Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Ocean Downs Casino in Berlin and Rocky Gap Casino in Flintstone, reopened on June 19, but it is the reopening of the three large casinos this week that will determine whether the industry can find a safe path back to profitability. A lot is riding on getting the reopening plan right.
While the games are the same, the feel on the floor is different, acknowledged John Flynn, MGM’s vice president of administration, who led a tour through the revamped casino last week. It may take some getting used to.
“There’s a comfort level that’s going to come with this over many months,” Flynn said. “We know there will be demand, but at the same time we’re in no hurry to fill things up. For us the most important thing is that our guests and our employees feel safe.”
Flynn pointed to a number of steps the casino had taken to that end, including installing a large hand-washing station in the middle of the casino floor. Dice will be exchanged and sanitized after each player’s turn, chips will be cleaned and sanitized weekly, and the air circulation rates have been increased to the casino and hotel’s ventilation system.
Employees will have their temperatures checked upon arriving at work and asked whether they have any symptoms consistent with the coronavirus, said Debra DeShong, MGM’s senior vice president for corporate communications and industry affairs. Any employee who is ill or has had close contact with someone who is infected will be tested and paid for up to three days to remain home while awaiting testing results. An employee who tests positive will continue to be paid while they remain home in isolation for two weeks.
Beverly Villanueva Lee, a table-games dealer at MGM since the casino opened in 2016, said some employees, particularly those living with elderly family members, have been reluctant to return to work and want to see how the safety protocols work.
But for Villanueva Lee, who was back on the job Monday, the new procedures were reassuring.
“I’m excited to be back,” she said. “We’ve been gone long enough.”
In theory, everything that can be done has been done to ensure gambling’s safe return. But public health experts continue to urge caution and point to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that recommend older Americans and those with underlying medical conditions avoid indoor gatherings where it may be difficult to maintain social distancing or avoid interacting with people from outside your local area.
In Nevada, where casinos reopened in early June, a spike in coronavirus cases prompted the governor to announce new restrictions and order mask wearing in casinos and bars when it had previously been optional. New Jersey will allow Atlantic City’s casinos to reopen Thursday at 25 percent capacity and with strict guidelines in place.
The reopening in Maryland will be watched closely.
“I think the measures being taken could be helpful,” said Jacob Bueno de Mesquita, a postdoctoral researcher at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health at the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health. “It is good that they are doing temperature reading and excluding people that could pose risks, and the reduction in capacity is important, too.”
But Bueno de Mesquita, who is working on a study by the institute to quantify the coronavirus’s spread in microscopic particles through exhaled breaths, acknowledged that reopening society requires some compromises and that even with precautionary steps there is a level of risk involved.
“If the only consideration is interrupting viral transmission, we would probably be taking much more stringent actions to do that,” he said.
Asked if he would go to a casino now, Bueno de Mesquita said, “No, because it’s not essential for me.”