BOSTON (State House News Service) — The state's slots parlor and casinos will remain closed until at least June 1 and each establishment is developing a plan to open with limited capacity, health screenings and temperature checks for all employees, physical distancing reminders and, at the casinos, voting booth-like plexiglass dividers at gaming tables.
The Gaming Commission met remotely Thursday afternoon to begin talking with its three licensees --Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett -- about the plans each facility has in mind for whenever they are allowed to reopen. The commission also voted Thursday to extend its mandated shutdown to at least June 1.
Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Thursday's roundtable was "intended to mark the beginning of an iterative process to support a future safe and sustainable reopening of all three gaming establishments" and that the commission "wants to be nimble to support a smooth, operationally sustainable restart when the time is right."
Gov. Charlie Baker's administration is slated to reveal more complete details of his four phases of reopening the economy on Monday, but the casino operators said they expect it will be several more weeks until gambling resumes in Massachusetts.
"We want to ensure everyone's safety. And on that point, by no means do we believe we should be in one of the earliest phases. We certainly defer to the governor and to the MGC as to when you find it appropriate for us to re-enter and re-engage," Brian Gullbrants, president of Encore Boston Harbor, said. "But what we want to do with this time is make sure that we continue to perfect the plan with everyone's collective knowledge so we have the best possible plan for our industry."
All three Massachusetts gambling facilities have been closed since March 17. The companies said Thursday that they expect casinos in other states will open back up before Massachusetts casinos and that they will update their Bay State plans based on the experiences of their sister casinos elsewhere.
"Our plan is evolving and our thoughts today will inevitably change as we come to learn more. And to that point, given what our state is experiencing related to the coronavirus outbreak relative to other states in which Penn National operates, we anticipate a far later reopening," Lance George, general manager of the Penn National Gaming-owned PPC, said. "Learnings from those reopenings around the country will help inform and inevitably change our plans. Certainly, we will gladly accept those learnings which will contribute to a far smoother reopening."
So might things be different when gambling resumes in Massachusetts? For one thing, the casinos might not be open 24/7 right out of the gate. Gullbrants said Encore was looking into the possibility of limiting the number of days it is open and Patrick Madamba, counsel to MGM, said he expects the company will have a lot of data from its other casinos before MGM Springfield reopens and "that will determine whether we want to limit the hours of that facility."
Players might have to submit to a temperature screening before entering a casino. Encore and PPC both said they plan to screen all guests and workers to ensure no one has a temperature of 100.4 degrees or more, and MGM is planning to implement mandatory temperature checks for all employees.
At Encore Boston Harbor or MGM Springfield, officials plan to limit the number of players at table games and card players might find themselves surrounded by plexiglass barriers like those that have become common at grocery stores and other settings where a customer and employee must be face to face.
"It's like a little voting booth. You've got plexi in front of you, on either side, you've got a mask, the dealer has a mask, and you're just able to put your hands under," Gullbrants said, adding that he's tried a similar setup himself. "I know it sounds a bit off-putting, but you really have to see it. It wasn't that bad."
Madamba said that MGM is exploring using either a plexiglass barrier between a dealer and players, or having the dealer wear a plastic face shield.
"We will be trying them shortly, likely shortly, at one of our properties that we expect will open before Memorial [Day] weekend," he said.
All three licensees said they plan to disable at least every other slot machine and remove chairs from deactivated machines to promote appropriate social distancing on the gaming floor. George said the Plainville slots parlor anticipates "reopening with less than 50 percent of our current gaming positions."
Each facility is planning to step up its cleaning and disinfecting routines -- Encore said it plans to sanitize its machines every hour -- and the companies have been stockpiling masks, gloves, disinfectant wipes and other supplies that will be crucial to reopening since they closed two months ago.
All three gaming companies acknowledged that social distancing will be part of the reopening gameplan and that it will be essential for them to enforce a safe distance between all guests and employees. That type of enforcement could run counter to the traditional approach of casinos, which tend to cater to the needs of their guests to keep them happy and keep them gambling.
"Listen, customer service has always been something that we've led with and we believe customer service is paramount in our industry. However, this is the one time in history that I believe health and safety trump everything," Gullbrants said. "And so we will make sure that our employees and our leaders are addressing issues where there is a lack of compliance with what we're asking. And if customers don't want to comply, there may be a point where we have to ask them to leave. We want this to be a safe, fun environment for all concerned."
After Thursday's roundtable concluded, Gaming Commission Interim Executive Director Karen Wells recommended that commissioners extend the casino closures until at least June 1 "so that the commission can incorporate the governor's forthcoming guidance and/or orders regarding this phased reopening of business in the commonwealth and incorporate that into casino reopening plans." The commission voted unanimously to accept that recommendation.
Madamba, the MGM lawyer, said it would be helpful for the casinos to know when they can reopen about 10 to 14 days ahead of time so they can prepare their employees, train employees in the new procedures, and make any adjustments that are needed. The others agreed that having some lead time would be beneficial.
"The sooner we're all on the same page we can take on any additional responsibilities that need to be in place if there's something missing from our plan," George said. "Some items might require some lead time so the sooner we can all agree and have a minimum set of standards, we can make sure that we are in good shape, and well-prepared in advance of whatever date it is that we reopen."
By Colin A. Young, State House News Service
(Photo: Mario Jarjour/WBZ NewsRadio)