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  • Willy Allison

Coronavirus: Casinos vs Goliath

It took a global pandemic to do what had never been done before - shut the casino industry down. What do we need to do to reopen our casinos safely?

Punched in the Face

We all remember 9/11. We all remember the 2008 recession. We will all remember the day our casinos shut down because of the global pandemic of 2020. 

It’s been humbling. Scientists have been warning us about the threat of pandemics for years. In hindsight we really should have added viruses to the list of inevitable things like death and taxes. Unfortunately, despite the warnings we were not prepared. Hopefully, we will be next time.

It seems like months (but actually it’s only been weeks) since most of us shut down and went into some form of lockdown or stay at home directive. I’m no doctor, nor an epidemiologist (I can’t even spell it) but over the last seven weeks I have learned a lot about viruses and the fragility of our economy. I’ve absorbed a lot of information on COVID-19. I’ve also heard a lot of nonsense. 

The difficulty in dealing with the new virus is well…it’s new. There’s still a lot of study and research to be done before we have a grip on how this nasty little bugger works and what we need to do to kill it.  Even leading scientists don’t all agree on how we should handle it. That’s ok, just find a vaccine please doctors. Pretty please.

In the last couple of weeks the talk has turned to recovery. What do we do to get our casino businesses up and running again? Opinions are mixed. Very mixed. Casinos have never hit control-alt-delete before. Does anyone have a pandemic playbook for casinos? Sure, it’s right next to the asteroid plummeting into the main gaming floor playbook on the didn’t see it coming shelf.

Reopening casinos will be like walking a tightrope over a river full of hungry crocs. Executives will have to balance science, data, health concerns, economics, customer service, public perception and the needs of their business. At the end of the day they may have no say in the matter. Many casinos will have to do what their government regulators tell them to do. 

Regardless of what safety or symbolic measures casinos introduce when they reopen I fear it is all a stall for time until the economy returns and the public feel safe enough to want to get their casino groove back on.

If we’re honest, the only way to protect people against the risk of being infected at a casino is not to open the casino at all. At least until there’s a vaccine. Given experts are estimating 12-18 months to find a vaccine, that is not an option. We need to reopen. We need to eat. We need to find a balance so we can survive until there is a successful vaccine. Our mindset should be one of improvisation - it’s only temporary.

Keys to Recovery: Soap and Face Masks

I would like to share my thoughts on what I think we need to do to reopen our casinos safely. I believe the core elements, or what I like to call the transition to a “pandemic-induced temporary operational plan,” are soap and face masks. These two items should be the meat and potatoes of any business that relies on interaction with people. We are at war but it’s not a war we can fight with guns and weapons. The enemy is invisible. Our most effective weapon is a vaccine but until it arrives we must wash our hands regularly and wear a mask when we are amongst strangers.

To fight the enemy we must understand the COVID. The COVID is a respiratory virus that attacks the lungs through droplets entering a victim directly through the mouth, nose or eyes. Infected people can spread the virus to other people, mainly by sneezing, coughing or talking. The COVID droplets can stay in the air for up to three hours and can also live on surfaces for varied lengths of time depending on what the surface is. If a person touches a surface that has been contaminated with the COVID they can become infected if they touch their mouth, nose or eyes with their hands.

To fight this virus we must think like a gladiator. Entering the arena disadvantaged and without a weapon of attack (vaccine) we will have to rely on weapons of defense, our helmet (face mask) and our shield (soap). 

Until a vaccine is found all employees and customers entering a casino should wear a face mask. Face masks serve four key purposes in the fight against the COVID: 1) reduce the risk of getting the COVID, 2) reduce the risk of spreading the COVID, 3) provide an obstacle for someone to touch their face, and 4) limit the dose of virus a person is exposed to, therefore reducing the symptoms and harmful effects of the illness. 

Traditionally, casino security practices have frowned on customers covering their face. Casinos have a regulatory and business obligation to keep minors and banned people out. To achieve that goal we need to be able to identify people. This could be achieved by customers looking into a camera designated for facial identification at screening points located at the entrance to the casino before they put their mask on. More on that later.

Some people have voiced concerns about the ability to identify people wearing face masks while they are playing. I’m not sure about that. I think people can be identified with a face mask on. We don’t tell men to shave their beards off. Surveillance staff will adapt. The speed of identification will probably come down to the quality of the camera system.

Look at it another way. An elderly person and good customer has an underlying condition and he wants to come to the casino. Given we’re in the middle of a global pandemic; with his personal health not so good and being advised by doctors to take precautions when around other people, he comes in wearing a face mask. Are you going to tell him to take it off? I see not allowing customers to wear a face mask as simply more problematic then requiring them to wear one. 

I’m not down with customers only wearing face masks if they want to. No shirt. No shoes. No mask. No entry. This is a global health crisis like no one living today has ever seen before. Until we have a vaccine we are in this together and businesses that rely on attracting large amounts of people to socialize and congregate should consider face masks the cost of doing (and staying) in business. Remember - it’s only temporary. 

Just as important as face masks is soap. Soap is our get out of jail free card. Odds are that when we venture out of the sanctuary of our own homes and start living again, we will more than likely touch a surface contaminated with the COVID. The good news is that soap kills it dead. It’s a life saver. If you happen to touch an object with your hands, all you have to do is wash them before you touch your face.

To play casino games staff and customers will touch chips, cash, cards, buttons, etc. Hand sanitizer (the lesser quality but still effective convenient version of soap) should be provided at the entrances, on all tables and near slot machines. Employees should be trained on the need for regular hand sanitization and customers will be encouraged to use it at the beginning, during and end of play. 

Washing hands will become the new clearing of hands procedure for dealers and floor supervisors. It goes without saying that sanitization of gaming equipment will be increased to a level of regularity and detail never seen before in our industry. 

Crowd Control 

All public entrances to the casino should become coronavirus screening points. Security and medically trained staff will look for symptoms of the COVID and give customers an information brochure on the casinos COVID safety measures. Customers will be required to look at a designated camera for facial identification before being provided with a face mask to be worn in the casino at all times. 

A real-time head count of customers should be calculated and monitored to enforce approved occupancy levels in the casino. Occupancy levels should be based on positions available for gaming activity. Customers loitering and congregating around other players should be moved along.

Customers will also be screened for intoxication and state of mind. People who are “out of it” should not be permitted entry due to possible behavior issues that could lead to compromising COVID safety precautions. It is even more important in these times that trouble makers are not allowed on the floor under any circumstances, especially if there is a risk that the health of others could be jeopardized by their behavior.

All staff should be trained to detect possible symptoms of the COVID in customers and be provided an open communication line to report observations to managers and in turn to medically trained staff for their assessment. It will be up to all game supervisors to ensure their work environment is always clean and sanitized. 

Symbolism Posing as Function

These are my key principles for a casino reopening plan: sanitization, face masks and crowd control. I believe it’s important to keep the plan simple, especially in a world that overnight became a lot more complicated and a lot more confusing. 

In recent weeks I’ve seen and heard of a lot of different new ideas being thrown around by casinos and vendors to introduce safety measures to combat the COVID. Reopening plans have been requested by governments so there is a rush to get plans submitted and approved quickly. A lot of ideas are untried and unproven. Here’s my thought on a couple of of ideas that are making the news right now. Like all new ideas the devil is in the details, which in a lot of cases are not included in the story. I applaud the spirit of innovation but caution against untested products.  

Temperature Checks: From what I’ve read and researched I am skeptical of the effectiveness of temperature guns and thermal imaging cameras, mainly because of the large percentage of asymptomatic COVID carriers and factors that may effect accuracy like air temperatures, exercise, medication, menopause etc. There have been valid questions raised by scientists and health care experts on the accuracy of the technology and there just isn’t enough evidence to show that off-the-shelf temperature checking equipment is effective in a casino environment. I have heard that thermography technology is the most accurate but it would require a customer to go through very specific procedures to obtain a reading. Oh yeah, and it’s expensive. 

I’ve also heard alarming stories that C-suite casino executives are rushing out to buy this stuff without even asking (or caring) if it works. There’s pressure for casinos to provide quick fix solutions to a complicated problem. Casinos should be prudent and provide evidence that the technology effectively does what it is supposed to do. 

I also have operational concerns about casino staff playing doctors and nurses. There could be compliance challenges with HIPAA, OSHA and FDA regulations as well as exposure to “false sense of security” lawsuits similar to past cases involving dummy cameras. Until I see evidence, to me this technology is just security theater.

However, I believe all employees should be temperature checked. Casinos should provide employees with their own individual medical thermometers. Tests could be self-administered at home before coming into work with the temperature recorded on a secure app designed to record video of the process along with the result. An employee registering over 100 degrees would result in an automatic call from the casinos medical staff and a call-in to the scheduling department to advise they won’t be coming in. 

Safety Shields: If you haven’t seen them they are custom made plexiglass barriers designed to fit between slot machine or table game players to act like a shield from the virus. Why? What do these “cone of silence” contraptions do that face masks don’t do except increase the risk of creating human petri dishes and obstructions to the surveillance system. How will air circulate and sound carry? “Hello dealer. This is box 3 calling. Do you have a squeegee? I can’t see my card total.”

Final Words and Other Things

I’ve stayed away from suggesting when casinos should reopen. Too complicated and political. I do feel that a requirement for casinos to reopen should be COVID testing for all staff and a clean bill of health.

Health should be an essential doctrine for casinos moving ahead. Smoking needs to go. Air quality is essential and everything should be done by employers to provide a clean air environment. Activity that promotes inhaling and exhaling air particles should not be permitted. Passive smoke causes healthy employees and customers to cough sometimes. Coughs will probably be treated like a four-letter word in the COVID world.

Drinks may be served to players at the table. This will be the only time a mask can be removed by a customer. People should stay hydrated during long periods of play.

Employees who spend long periods of time face-to-face with customers (i.e. dealers) should consider wearing clear glasses or safety goggles. This is a personal choice. I think the odds of contracting the virus if everyone is wearing masks is greatly lessoned but glasses could add an extra layer of protection.

I believe player numbers on table games and slot machines should be halved to ensure players are reasonably distanced from each other. I don’t see a need to close any games down. We still want to give players choices and we don’t want to takeaway regular valued customers favorite games. We also want to keep as many staff employed and working as possible.

So that’s it. Clean and simple. As Winston Churchill once said “If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.” 

There are a lot more questions, measures and decisions to consider in the upcoming months. I have given a brief overview of what I think should be key principles in developing a plan for navigating these times.

Most 2020 business plans have been thrown out the door. As an industry, we should be focusing together on doing what we can to give our customers confidence that casinos are a safe place to visit. Traditional rules, procedures and business practices will be put aside for the moment. Maybe some will be removed forever.

It’s only temporary. We’ll be back.

stay well  willy


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