For three months, Colorado casino operations were at a standstill, after the state closed gambling venues to flatten the COVID-19 curve. That closure led to a massive financial hit for the gaming industry, with many workers furloughed or laid off.
In June, the state allowed casinos to reopen under strict public-health guidelines. Slot machines were allowed, but table games such as blackjack and craps — key revenue generators for many casinos — remained forbidden.
"Playing a slot machine is basically the most socially isolating thing you can do. It’s one human with an inanimate object," says David Farahi, chief operating officer of the Monarch Casino and Resort in Black Hawk. "With table games, at a minimum, you have a dealer and a player. Because it’s more challenging to make it safe, I think that’s the reason why the state didn’t allow table games at the onset."
And that meant more hardship for Gilpin County, which gets 85 percent of its budget from the gaming industry.
"One of the things that was a little disappointing coming from the [state] was that in that initial variance, it had a few extra things, like, 'In two weeks, we'll revisit opening table games,'" explains Ron Engels, a Gilpin County commissioner. "Two weeks came and went, and then nothing. Those two weeks turned into two months."
Finally, on September 8, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment granted three counties permission to move to the Protect Our Neighbors level of operations, with less stringent guidelines, because the counties had met certain goals related to case numbers, health care and testing capacity. Rio Blanco and Mesa counties made the cut. So did Gilpin.
With that status change, casinos in the Gilpin County gaming towns of Black Hawk and Central City are now able to offer table games — though they will look much different this time around.
"Since Colorado is the only state that allowed casinos to open with slot machines only and not table games, there are some best practices that have been developed across the country that we’re going to deploy here in Colorado," says Farahi.
At Monarch, table games will now be "touch-free on the cards," according to Farahi. So for blackjack, the only version of the game that will be allowed is one in which the first card is dealt face up, like all of the other face-up cards in a player's hand. That way, only the dealer will be touching the cards. There will be hand sanitizer at every table, and casino workers will sanitize chips throughout the day.
Monarch guests interested in playing games that require a player to touch cards, such as pai gow poker, will be out of luck, however. "We decided to not offer that game right now so that we can avoid that issue," says Farahi.
But it will have craps. "The shooter will sanitize their hands before shooting," explains table games manager Steve Zlobin. "The dice will be sanitized as well. When the shooter changes, the dice will again be sanitized and the shooter will sanitize before they shoot. Rinse and repeat.”
All of these precautions add to what Monarch has been doing since it was able to turn its slot machines back on in June. Staffers, including the hundred or so dealers who are about to restart work, are being tested for COVID. Surfaces in the casino have been covered with an antimicrobial coating designed to protect them from germs and viruses, and they're being cleaned more frequently. Air circulation has been increased. And, of course, everyone inside the casinos must wear masks.
Although slot machines generate the most money for casinos, table games play a key role in the gaming business — and not just because they generate the second-highest revenue for a place like Monarch.
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"There are couples. One person likes table games, another likes slots. If there are no table games, neither comes," explains Farahi. "Another way where it’s really meaningful is that there are literally thousands of dealers here in the industry in Colorado who have mostly been out of work."
Monarch is bringing back nearly all of its dealers, and other dealers are returning to other casinos in the county. Teller County, which is home to Cripple Creek, Colorado's third gaming town, still hasn't received the green light from the state to reopen table games. “Counties that cannot meet the Protect our Neighbors criteria have disease transmission levels that present increased risk, particularly in situations where people are indoors and unable to socially distance," according to the Colorado State Joint Information Center.
As casinos expand their offerings in Gilpin County, the numbers may start to turn in their favor after a bleak spring and disappointing summer. But it's going to take a while for the county itself to come back.
"For the next several years, we’re going to be hurting," Engels says.