Attendants will be circling slot machines with disinfectant solution to wipe down screens between plays. Dice at the tables will be switched out every time there’s a new shooter. Gamblers will have to wear masks, removing them only briefly so employees can check their IDs.
It’s not yet clear when casinos in Massachusetts will reopen. They’ve been shuttered since mid-March amid the coronavirus crisis, and they’ll remain that way for weeks, if not months, as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission looks for signs of progress in the state’s battle against the pandemic and awaits Governor Charlie Baker’s decision on when nonessential businesses can reopen.
But whenever Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park do allow patrons through their doors again, they will reveal very different experiences than those they offered before COVID-19.
“US gambling patrons have never experienced anything like this, going into properties where people are wearing masks, taking your temperature,” Colin A. Mansfield, gambling industry analyst with Fitch Ratings. “It is really difficult to predict how people are going to behave, and how they’re going to feel seeing something like that.”
The gaming commission on Friday voted to extend the closure of the casinos to May 18, in compliance with Baker’s decision this week to prolong the statewide stay-at-home directive until that date.
But it’s not likely that casinos will be the first businesses to roar back to life in what Baker has described as a “phased” transition back to normal. Gaming commission chair Cathy Judd-Stein said during the meeting that the regulatory body will proceed deliberately.
“The timeline … to reopen is still uncertain, however, our attention is now focused on developing a responsible restart plan and maximizing this time that we have to establish guidelines, in coordination and collaboration with key stakeholders, including the three licensees, state and local leaders, and of course public health officials,” she said.
For an industry that has been devastated by the widespread closures from COVID-19, casinos have been publicly patient about the pace of reopening ― cognizant that a rush to restore their revenue at the expense of customer and employee safety could do long-term damage to their reputation.
Wynn Resorts, which owns Encore Boston Harbor, has been among the most vocal companies in Las Vegas, where it is based, as that city considers how to reopen its signature industry. Wynn chief executive Matt Maddox has laid out a 23-page plan for a gradual approach that could safely bring its properties there back.
“I understand that if we incrementally reopen, we might have to pull back if a spike in cases occurs that jeopardizes our health care system capacity,” Maddox wrote of the Las Vegas economy. “However, the only way to cross this river is one stone at a time and we need to put our feet in the water before it is too late.”
The Vegas plan includes thermal cameras that can monitor people’s temperature in a “non-invasive” way, masks and hand sanitizer handed out to hotel guests in their amenity bags, and lots of social distancing. Guests will be encouraged to stand six feet apart from anyone they didn’t come with, slot machines will be positioned far apart from one another, and the crowds at gaming tables will be controlled assiduously. Staff will remind visitors not to touch their faces.
While the company has not yet laid out a vision for what it would do in Massachusetts, many of the concepts could translate to the Everett site. Before they reopen, Wynn, along with Springfield operator MGM Resorts and Plainridge operator Penn National Gaming, will have to establish that they can serve guests without putting them at risk.
There have been many ideas discussed across the industry. One Las Vegas casino plans to hand out plastic sticks for pressing the buttons, according to the Associated Press. Others are installing plexiglass barriers between workers and the public.
Penn National said in a statement that it is awaiting approval from the Massachusetts commission on its own set of safety protocols.
“The safety and wellbeing of our team members and customers is our top priority. With this in mind, we are working closely with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission and state and local leaders to develop a comprehensive plan to prepare for the eventual reopening of Plainridge Park Casino,” the statement said.
The social distancing will also mean reduced capacity, and a slower return to normal business for an industry that was experiencing a softer-than expected launch in Massachusetts.
MGM and Wynn have already seen the lingering effects play out at their casinos in Macau, the Asian gambling hub where business has not yet approached its normal levels following a shutdown during the height of the outbreak in that region.
Massachusetts has the relative good fortune of having casino operators that so far have managed to keep their finances relatively healthy during the crisis, Mansfield said. Both Wynn and MGM have sold bonds, and Penn has been able to make some arrangements to get relief on its real estate costs.
“These companies have long runways of liquidity to be able to ride out the storm,” Mansfield said.
He noted that the casinos may also wind up cutting labor costs while operating at reduced capacity. While Plainridge and MGM Springfield have laid off or furloughed most of their workers, Encore is continuing to pay them through May 15. The success of the reopening could determine how many of the thousands of people the industry once employed will remain in the field.
Dina Tanvuia, chair of the hospitality and event management program at Lasell University,, said the casinos here should focus first on convincing customers that it is safe to return.
“You need to show that you’re changing the circumstances in order for the guests to feel safe,” she said. “I think everybody understands that the establishment, by implementing these, is also losing money.”