Nevada gaming regulators unanimously approved health and safety requirements Thursday that the state’s gaming operators must follow in order to reopen casinos once the shut down due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic is lifted.
In an hour-long virtual hearing – more than half of which was dominated by public comments read into the record by Executive Secretary Marie Bell from organized labor, responsible gaming proponents, and anti-casino smoking advocates – the four commissioners approved the two sets of health and safety guidelines established by the Gaming Control Board last week.
Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan told the commission the protocols were written as a preliminary set of guidelines for casino operators of all sizes, from large Strip resorts to locations with 15 slot machines.
Nevada’s gaming industry has been closed since March 18 as part of the shut-down of non-essential businesses ordered by Gov. Steve Sisolak in an effort to slow the spread of the virus. On Thursday afternoon, Sisolak said the state had met several benchmarks dictated by health professionals and that a portion of Nevada’s economy would reopen Saturday. However, the gaming industry would remain closed.
In the interim, casino operators are required to submit their own health and safety plans to the Control Board before reopening properties.
“I don’t want to say they are fluid, but (the Control Board guidelines) are subject to change,” Morgan said. “The goal was to give universal guidance.”
The guidelines – a seven-page document for resort casinos and locals gaming properties, and a four-page notice for operators with up to 15 slot machines, such as taverns, bars, restaurants, convenience stores, and supermarkets – establish initial requirements covering operations, customers and employees.
Casinos run by resort operators will be limited to no more than 50% their maximum occupancy capacity, must increase the space between their slot machines, and will be required to limit the seating at table games – three players for blackjack, six for craps, four for roulette, and four for poker.
Also, casinos are to follow state and medical requirements for the usage of medical masks and other personal protective equipment and should make the items available for resort guests and employees. It is up to the casino to decide if masks will be required.
As with resort casinos, occupancy inside the smaller locations will be reduced by 50% while social distancing measures in taverns will limit the number of bar top slot machines that can be used at a given time.
Acting Gaming Commission Chairman John Moran Jr. signaled that the commissioners would not make any changes to the Control Board’s health and safety guidelines because the commission had “an obligation to fulfill its duties by setting gaming policy for our state.”
Commissioner Member Deborah Fuetsch said the policies were needed because “reopening our state will be slow” and the casino companies will also be “writing their own plans.”
Reopening the Strip
Sisolak said the first phase of Nevada’s gradual reopening, which includes retail businesses, hair salons, and restaurants at 50% capacity, would begin Thursday. Taverns that serve food can reopen, but their bars and bar top slot machines must remain closed. Social distancing guidelines will be in effect.
Sisolak had said casinos would not be open “at the beginning” of the first phase, which will last until May 30. However, he could move up the timeline if additional benchmarks are met.
Sisolak said the Gaming Control Board will ultimately decide when casinos can reopen.
Several Strip resorts have been accepting hotel reservations for later in May. Wynn Resorts said Wednesday it would target the end of May for the reopening of both its Strip resorts. MGM Resorts International said it would initially reopen just two of its 13 Strip properties, Bellagio and New York-New York, once permission is given. Las Vegas Sands said it wouldn’t open its two Strip resorts until sometime in June.
Meanwhile, gaming stocks rallied Thursday following the Gaming Commission’s vote. Shares of MGM Resorts increased 7.3%, Eldorado Resorts was up 7.08%, Red Rock Resorts rose 10.39%, Boyd Gaming was up 12.75%, and Golden Entertainment jumped 7.08%
Under the guidelines, in addition to building occupancy limitations, conventions will be limited to 250 people, restaurants are to have limited seating, swimming pool cabanas and lounge chairs “must allow for appropriate distancing” and nightclubs and dayclubs will remain closed.
Meanwhile, Culinary Workers Local 226 is asking state gaming regulators to publicly release all re-opening plans submitted by Nevada casino operators. The union, which represents some 60,000 non-gaming resort workers on the Strip and downtown, said in a statement that the public needs to have confidence that the Nevada gaming industry is taking all necessary actions to ensure worker and guest safety during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The union released its own set of proposed public health guidelines as a minimum standard in evaluating licensees’ individual plans.
State gaming regulations, however, require material from the gaming licensees to be kept confidential. So far, Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands have made their reopening guidelines public.
“Safety is a matter of life and death for workers and tourists,” Culinary Secretary-Treasurer Geoconda Argüello-Kline said in a statement. “Gaming companies have a responsibility to be transparent with Nevadans as our community fights to control this pandemic.”
Former gaming executive Alan Feldman, now a Distinguished Fellow for Responsible Gaming at UNLV’s International Gaming Institute, asked the Commission to encourage casino operators “to enhance their responsible gaming programs to identify and appropriately respond to the unique circumstances created by COVID-19.” Feldman said the measures could include “enhanced training for employees, creating specialized messaging for guests, and/or revalidating credit decisions.”
“During these unprecedented times over the last three months, many customers may have experienced significant life events related to the pandemic that operators need to be cognizant of and have plans in place to address,” Feldman said in the letter read by Bell. “Experiences that have traditionally been known to contribute to problem gambling may have been experienced by many returning customers, such as isolation, loss of income, loss of a loved one, or unemployment. These experiences may contribute to customers using gambling as an escape from the stress of the pandemic or as an attempt to recoup lost income.”
Howard Stutz is the executive editor of CDC Gaming Reports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @howardstutz on Twitter.