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Maryland casinos say they will reduce number of visitors by 50% as some dealers are sent home

Maryland’s six casinos say they are reducing the number of patrons allowed in their buildings by 50% to minimize “customer interactions” in response to the new coronavirus outbreak.

Among the casinos taking the action is Live Casino & Hotel, where “a handful” of dealers have been sent home “out of an abundance of caution,” said casino president Robert Norton in an interview Saturday.

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“At this point we have no known cases of the coronavirus that have been reported through our staff,” Norton said. "We have people that we have asked to stay home from work.”

Norton said the Anne Arundel County casino has been consulting with its local medical facility and Maryland officials and has taken “a very aggressive policy to have people stay home when they are at risk of infection.”

A joint announcement by five of the six casinos said they were implementing the visitor reduction "in ways that best create social distancing.”

The sixth casino — MGM National Harbor, the state’s largest — issued a separate statement Saturday night saying it, too, “will be reducing the capacity on our gaming floor by 50%.”

The actions are aimed at allaying customer concerns and preventing the spread of the virus at the casinos — large gathering places in which gamblers often sit shoulder to shoulder. The five casinos said the reductions would begin Monday, and MGM National Harbor said it would likely follow the same timetable.

“We expect elimination of chairs at slot machines and table games, limiting the number of patrons allowed onto the gaming floor, restrictions in food and beverage outlets and other measures,” the casinos’ statement said.

The result, the casinos said, will be a “significantly lower density environment.” At Live, Norton said the action would “reduce the visitations by thousands at any given time.”

The news release appeared with the logos of Live, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Rocky Gap in Cumberland and Ocean Downs near Ocean City.

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All six casinos had said Friday that they were implementing preventative measures such as staff training and increased cleaning but had no plans to close.

The casinos remained open as schools closed around the state and the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, the NCAA basketball tournaments and other large events shut down.

Gordon Medenica, the state’s Lottery and Gaming director, said Friday that the agency had asked the casinos “to provide guidance to us on their plans for social distancing and other preventative measures to limit the spread of the virus.”

“They are developing and implementing best practices together as a group and in conjunction with their corporate headquarters,” Medenica said. “The situation continues to evolve and our requirements will change as conditions demand.”

Maryland’s six casinos — private businesses regulated by the state — are given discretion in emergencies about remaining open, so long as they consult with the regulatory agency.

“The casinos can choose to close under their own volition in emergencies and will notify the [Maryland Lottery and Gaming Control Agency] so that we can coordinate efforts together,” an agency spokesperson said.

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The six casinos collectively employ thousands of people. In some games — such as blackjack and poker — gamblers and dealers huddle in small spaces.

The coronavirus outbreak has forced players to calculate their risks.

“I am staying clear from all casinos until this blows over,” Jake Rosenberg, a Washington-area blackjack and poker player, said Friday. “Honestly can’t think of a worse place to go during a pandemic with all the chips and people from all over congregating. I know a lot of my poker friends that play for a living are continuing to play, but I will not be doing so.”

Other gamblers continued to partake, including a retired Annapolis couple who arrived at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore last week to play on a $5 slot machine. They positioned a bottle of Germ-X sanitizing gel nearby and regularly wiped down the machine’s lever and buttons.

Elsewhere, players crowded around craps and blackjack tables three or four at a time.

There was some confusion over the procedures under which a casino might close its doors.

A memorandum from Live management to employees on Friday said the Anne Arundel County casino is “in fact, required under Maryland regulations to continue to operate the casino 24/7 unless specifically instructed otherwise by State regulators.”

The casino quickly deleted the language after being questioned by a reporter, leaving only the preceding sentence reading: “We are continuing to operate, while following official guidance from the relevant officials of the State of Maryland and the federal government.”

The question-and-answer memo, obtained by the Baltimore Sun, said Live would pay “100% of your reportable wage, including tips” to employees unable to work because they were diagnosed with COVID-19. Citing federal health officials’ recommendations, it said staff was not permitted to wear face masks to work but that gloves might be worn on a case-to-case basis.

Live also said it was taking “numerous extra measures to clean and sanitize surfaces throughout the property, including slots, tables and poker chips.” It said it was providing mandatory extra training to staff and postponing programs — including a show featuring comedian Adam Sandler next week — with groups of 250 or more.

The other casinos, including Horseshoe Baltimore, were taking similar preventative steps.

MGM National Harbor said Friday it postponed all events in its theater through the end of March and “significantly elevated our cleaning protocols, increasing the frequency of our disinfecting procedures,” among other measures.

The state shares gambling revenue with the casinos. Last month, the six casinos generated $151.2 million, a 10.6% increase over the same month a year earlier. The state collected $62.8 million, with most of it going to the Education Trust Fund.

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