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As Mass. waits out COVID-19, casinos in Conn. are open for business

Clear dividers shielded patrons from each other at the reopened Foxwoods Resort Casino.
Clear dividers shielded patrons from each other at the reopened Foxwoods Resort Casino.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

MASHANTUCKET, Conn. — On the road leading to Foxwoods Resort Casino, a state highway sign flashes a warning: “DON’T GAMBLE W/ HEALTH. AVOID LARGE CROWDS.” But for those who want to gamble with money, Foxwoods is open for business.

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, the state’s two tribal-owned gaming resorts, this week became the first casinos in the region to throw open their doors amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As sovereign entities, the tribes were able to do so against the wishes of Connecticut authorities, who wanted them to wait for more progress to be made in the effort to control the virus.

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At Foxwoods, interim chief executive Jason Guyot said he believes the worst of the threat has passed, and that the resort’s aggressive cleaning, screening, and social distancing protocols will keep patrons and employees safe while the casino begins to recover from the financial losses that have decimated the hospitality industry.

Guyot said the casino has reduced its capacity to about 25 percent of what it normally would be, though business has been brisk ― about 7,600 guests on Monday, a turnout that he described as “strong."

“We feel as though we’re in a good spot, and we’re doing everything we can to get this economy reopened, get our team members back to work, get the doors open, and provide people some safe entertainment,” he said.

Darien Keen, a security supervisor, monitored a thermal imaging temperature screening station.
Darien Keen, a security supervisor, monitored a thermal imaging temperature screening station.Barry Chin/Globe Staff

If the vehicles in a Foxwoods parking garage Tuesday were any indication, many Massachusetts gamblers are ready to play again. The number of license plates from the Bay State rivaled those from Connecticut and Rhode Island.

What happens in Connecticut over the next few weeks could have implications for Massachusetts, where casinos remain closed at least until the end of this month under Governor Charlie Baker’s reopening plan. If the tribal casinos are able to ramp up safely, that could provide some comfort to regulators and patrons in Massachusetts. A new outbreak of the virus, meanwhile, could raise another red flag in what has already been a deliberately slow process.

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Foxwoods says it has not been marketing to Massachusetts, but the word is out.

“I’ve been stuck in the house for so long, I just had to get out and see what it’s like in there,” said Sam Johnson of Yarmouth, who was on his way into Foxwoods Tuesday morning. Johnson said he used to visit Encore Boston Harbor in Everett or one of Rhode Island’s casinos.

He was skeptical of playing blackjack at tables encased in plexiglass, but he was willing to put up with the inconvenience in the name of safety.

“It’s definitely going to change the experience, but hopefully it doesn’t change the main reason why people come, which is to win money,” he said.

The casino, which as a tribal property is not subject to the same state regulations as its competitors in Massachusetts, is reopening gradually, starting with portions of the hotel and casino space in its Grand Pequot Tower. There are no live events or conferences scheduled.

Inside, there are many reminders of the coronavirus permeating a luxe atmosphere designed to lull gamblers into putting aside any concerns about the outside world.

Security officers limited the number of entrances and used thermal scanners to detect anyone with an elevated temperature. Gamblers wore an assortment of face coverings, and employees sported sleek gray cloth masks emblazoned with the Foxwoods logo. Hotel receptionists and dealers stood behind plexiglass shields. Restaurants were grab-and-go only. Hand sanitizer dispensers were everywhere.

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But in other ways, the scene was strangely normal. Slot machines blipped and chattered, their displays lighting up the floor — even though some were shut off to maintain adequate distance between players. Table games were open, if sparsely populated by the daytime crowd.

Only a few offerings were off-limits, including the poker room, bingo, and simulcast racing (mostly because there aren’t many races to bet on right now).

Guyot, wearing a trim gray suit that nearly matched his mask, bumped elbows with employees ― no handshakes for now — as he strolled through the casino, inspecting temperature monitors and greeting patrons. At one point, he walked over to a slots player who had lowered her mask and politely reminded her to cover her mouth and nose.

He took over amid the shutdown, after his predecessor abruptly departed, and has presided over a painful period for the casino’s workforce. Foxwoods employed about 4,500 people before it closed in March, but it laid off or furloughed most of them as the crisis dragged on. The resort has called back about a third of its employees for its limited-scale reopening.

Not everyone in Connecticut is convinced that it’s wise to allow gambling this soon. Governor Ned Lamont has voiced concerns about how the decision might affect public health.

“I thought we should have waited until mid-, late June like our neighbors. I thought that would have been safer for employees, safer for customers, and safer for the region,” he said in a radio appearance this week.

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Guyot said he was surprised by the sign the state placed near the entrance to Foxwoods. He said he and his colleagues have done all they can to offer reassurances to officials.

Down the road at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, officials reported a similarly successful reopening, with a steady stream of customers.

For now, the casino industry in New England looks as it did for much of the past three decades, with Connecticut’s large casinos drawing from the entire region.

That likely won’t last. Rhode Island’s Twin River casinos are planning to reopen by invitation-only next week. And if public health trends continue in the right direction, Massachusetts casinos could be back in action in July.

Encore, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park in Plainville have been assiduously patient in their public statements about Baker’s reopening plan. Officials there have spent the past several weeks discussing their health and safety protocols with the Massachusetts Gaming Commission.

They all say the Connecticut situation hasn’t changed their views on how Massachusetts should proceed.

Industry experts say its unlikely that Connecticut casinos will be able to make a long-term play for customers who live near Massachusetts casinos once those facilities are back in business. Revenue at Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods declined following the opening of casinos in Massachusetts.

Clyde W. Barrow, a professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley who has studied the New England casino market extensively, said he believes regional casinos will be fighting over an even tighter market once they are all back online amid an economic slowdown and high unemployment.

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Connecticut casinos may see a short-term benefit from being alone in the region, he said, but the coming days will be a critical period for the industry overall — Las Vegas casinos also are opening this week. Barrow said an outbreak at any one casino could affect all of them by scaring off gamblers.

“The first thing we’ll learn over the next few weeks is whether these preventative measures are working,” Barrow said.


Andy Rosen can be reached at andrew.rosen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @andyrosen.