Of all the Colorado businesses reopening during recent weeks amid the COVID-19 crisis, casinos face some of the biggest challenges. After all, a significant portion of their clientele is in the sixty-and-up demographic that's most at risk of fatal consequences from the novel coronavirus, and casino operators need to persuade such folks that they won't be gambling with their lives while gambling away their children's inheritance.
To see how this pitch is working, we headed to Black Hawk, one of Colorado's three mountain towns that allow gambling, on Saturday, June 27, and visited two of the community's largest gaming establishments, Ameristar Casino, Resort and Spa and The Lodge Casino. What we found there were decent, if not overwhelming, crowds of customers more diverse in terms of age, if not ethnicity, than stereotypes might suggest, and the vast majority gave at least a nod toward social distancing and wore facial coverings.
Whether they wore them correctly is another matter.
The Central City Parkway was far from jammed during our drive up from Denver. Still, the lower levels of the Ameristar parking garage were mostly filled upon our arrival, and the line to enter the casino, complete with floor stickers placed six feet apart, grew to around thirty people while we waited.
At a kiosk placed in front of escalators leading to the main floor, Ameristar employees stood ready to insert our driver's licenses into the slot of a small gadget connected to a contraption that combined temperature-taking with facial recognition.
After passing both tests, we rode an escalator down to the primary gambling zone. At first glance, few risk-takers were in sight, in part because gaming tables aren't yet operating, owing to the health issues related to multiple people handling cards, chips and the like.
But deeper into the casino, where most of the slot machines are grouped, the scene changed.
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By our estimate, around 30 percent of the slots were being used at any given time, and few casino-goers from different parties sat directly next to each other. A gap of a machine or more was common, and as soon as someone moved on, an Ameristar employee would swoop in and disinfect the buttons, levers and seats so they'd be ready for the next person.
Likewise, sanitation stations with hand sanitizer were strategically placed in high-traffic areas.
Gamblers at least made a nod to following safety precautions; we saw only a few who eschewed a mask. But 10 to 20 percent of the customers at Ameristar wore their facial coverings underneath their nose, making their use utterly pointless.
A block away, the Lodge Casino used a different admission process. A masked employee handed us stickers reading "TEMP CHECK" that we were told would be automatically scanned on our way to the gaming area to determine if we were running a fever. If we failed, we would be stopped by another staffer, but no one blocked our way, rendering the other word on the sticker — "APPROVED" — entirely accurate.
The Lodge was a bit busier than Ameristar. Its gaming tables had been nixed, too, but approximately 40 to 50 percent of the slot machines were in use. Spacing between individuals or groups was also in evidence, and sanitation options were readily available.
Again, only a few customers had ditched their masks entirely, but 20 percent or so had them placed in such a nose-exposing way that they would have been equally effective in their pockets.
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As people passed each other in the walkways between gambling pods, most of them allowed for six feet or more of space between them and others, just as signage featuring Yosemite Sam directed — and the volume of customers made that possible.
Over time, higher attendance at Black Hawk casinos could make social distancing more difficult — and because many gamblers spend entire days in such places, the risk of breathing the same recirculated air for hour upon hour could certainly come into play.
Which makes sense — since casinos are all about chance.