reopening Massachusetts

Masked Casino Gamblers May See Fewer Options

State plans call for no poker, craps or roulette until further notice, blackjack-style gaming tables capped at three players and slots machines spaced and separated with barriers

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Gaming regulators had hoped to finalize their rules for a safe reopening of the state's casinos and slots parlor Wednesday, but opted instead to delay the adoption of final guidelines after licensees balked at some of the commission's proposed requirements.

The Mass. Gaming Commission met Wednesday to work towards finalizing its minimum requirements for reopening, and settled on a number of guidelines that will make casino gaming a dramatically different experience for gamblers when it returns to Massachusetts after a layoff of more than three months.

Plainridge Park Casino in Plainville, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor in Everett have all been closed since March 15 and cannot reopen until June 29 at the earliest. Casino gambling has resumed in Las Vegas, Connecticut and other states around, and the Gaming Commission has been studying how those jurisdictions have fared.

For starters, plans call for no poker, craps or roulette until further notice, blackjack-style gaming tables will be capped at three players, and slots machines will be separated and are likely to have some sort of barrier between them. The commission is also weighing occupancy limits, but the licensees raised some issues with the cumulative effects of the commission's proposal to limit the total number of gaming positions and require the installation of Plexiglas shields at all gaming tables.

"Our licensees are saying to us that there is a potential that that is a game changer for them, to impose that requirement," commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said. "We have, without knowing that, we all agreed that that made good sense in light of the current public health standards."

The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is discussing how to reopen casinos.

None of the gaming establishments said Wednesday that they would not reopen under the terms of the guidance commissioners discussed Wednesday, but said they wanted to better understand what reduced capacity would mean for their businesses and wanted to get updated employee counts to the commissioners if they plan to take workers into account when calculating capacity limits.

So instead of voting to finalize the guidance document, commissioners decided to delay and asked Interim Executive Director Karen Wells to coordinate with each licensee to gather information and schedule another meeting. Judd-Stein said the commission will give notice of the next meeting "as soon as possible."

"We're all in uncharted water here, we're doing the best we can," Patrick Madamba, counsel to MGM, said. "I'm sure we will work through this as well very, very quickly."

Judd-Stein told the officials that even if their casinos in other states are not required to adhere to as rigid of a set of guidelines, they should recognize that the pandemic has played out differently in Massachusetts than in other parts of the country.

"We're hopeful that you are appreciative of the challenges that are here in Massachusetts in terms of where we are with our public health metrics and that you keep an open mind to consider this mitigating option because the health of patrons and employees, we all agree, is paramount," Judd-Stein told representatives from the three betting halls. "With that said, we want to be fair but we obviously need more information if this today presents a real challenge for you with your business model. I think we have a document that is really close."

At one point Friday, more than 1,700 people waited to get into Mountaineer Casino, Racetrack and Resort in West Virginia

Coming into Wednesday's meeting, the commissioners were already close to agreement on the majority of the provisions in the proposed guidance. Commissioners held a roundtable with casino operators last month to get a sense of what might work and last week met for more than five hours to go through an 11-page memo that detailed a menu of safety protocol options.

At least a week before reopening, each licensee will be required to submit its own plan detailing "the steps and measures the licensee will take to achieve compliance with the guidance and protocols" to the Gaming Commission, and each facility will have to be fully cleaned and disinfected.

Upon arrival, gamblers will be told not to enter if they have recently had any COVID-19 symptoms, casino staffers will hand out masks or face coverings if guests do not have their own, and hand sanitizer will be made available. Players will be required to wear something that covers their nose and mouth upon
entry and while in the gaming area.

The casinos will be asked to limit how often players touch cards or chips, and will have to develop a protocol for chip sanitation so that all chips have been sanitized before they are issued. Each facility will also have to come up with a plan to replace cards based on volume and frequency of play.

Commissioners acknowledged Wednesday that whatever guidelines they approve will probably change once the slots parlor and casinos reopen and the regulators can determine what is and what is not working the way they intend.

"We're going to learn how crowds really behave when it comes to a casino in New England," Commissioner Enrique Zuniga said.

The commission's rules will not be the only ones the casinos will have to adhere to once they are cleared to reopen. Gov. Charlie Baker's administration is working on its own set of guidelines for the gaming industry as well, commission officials have said.

State House News Service
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