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Thermal scanners, partitions and masks await Maryland casinogoers. Would people come back?

Maryland Live Casino works feverishly to comply in order to open during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Poker rooms, blackjack tables, slot machines and roulette wheels sit in what feels like unnatural silence as Maryland casinos prepare for when the state decides they can safely reopen.

Thermal cameras also await guests in order to gauge their temperatures unobtrusively at entry points, and there are clear acrylic dividers to protect players and dealers at table games, disposable face masks and signs with messages such as “Practice Social Distancing” and “Cough and Sneeze into your Elbow.”

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It will be a new world for the state’s half-dozen casinos, which are rethinking the look and rules of their gambling floors to try to ease customers’ concerns about the coronavirus, the contagion that’s swept the nation sickening nearly 1.6 million and killing almost 100,000 people.

“It’s going to look completely different,” David Cordish, chairman and CEO of the Cordish Cos., said of his Live Casino & Hotel in Hanover. “It’s going to have space where we used to have people and machines.”

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Like so many facets of their business, the casinos’ efforts represent a gamble. They are betting that — because of their retooling, masks, vast gaming floors, rules requiring social distancing and constant surveillance — they can ease any coronavirus concerns of regulators, public health officials and, most importantly, their guests who want to wager.

Gov. Larry Hogan ordered casinos, racetracks and off-track betting parlors shut down indefinitely, effective March 16, to try to limit the spread of the highly contagious virus, which has sickened more than 44,000 Marylanders and killed more than 2,000.

Thousands of casino workers have been furloughed. Live, which has more than 2,500 employees, said it furloughed the vast majority of the staff. So did Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, which normally employs more than 1,300 people.

It is uncertain when they will reopen.

“If we were to get the high sign from the governor, I think we could probably open up in a couple weeks,” said Gordon Medenica, the state’s lottery and gaming director. “I think we all recognize that this will be a work in progress even after the opening. It’s going to be the new normal for some period of time.”

Both the casinos and the state have plenty of motivation to safely get them reopened. Maryland casinos, which have been setting revenue records in recent years, pay millions to the state each month.

The state’s casinos generated more than $150 million in revenue in February, their last full month of operating.

Maryland’s share of casino money is important to the state’s budget. Casinos generated $717.5 million for the state during the fiscal year that ended last June 30. The state’s casino money supports its education trust fund as well as horse racing and grant funds for the communities around the casinos.

Hogan announced a three-stage plan for Maryland’s eventual reopening in late April, starting with lifting the stay-at-home order and allowing more recreation activities and some stores and services to reopen on a restricted basis. That first-stage began last week, but local governments are allowed to keep some limitations in place as they have in Baltimore City, home to a Horseshoe casino; Anne Arundel County, home to Live casino; and Prince George’s County, home of the MGM National Harbor Resort & Casino.

It’s not clear whether the state will consider casinos for the second or third stage. Stage two would allow larger social gatherings, indoor gym classes and religious services, and restaurant and bar service with restrictions. Stage three would allow large social gatherings, fewer restrictions on visitors at nursing homes and hospitals, and the reopening of entertainment venues.

Moving through the reopening stages has been predicated on declines in the number of new COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, as well as expanded testing, contact tracing, hospital capacity and personal protective equipment supplies.

Whenever they get the green light, there will be plenty at stake, including the casinos’ reputations and the safety of thousands of guests.

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“One thing they have going for them is the casino floors are very spacious,” said James Karmel, a Harford Community College professor and casino analyst. “They have high ceilings mostly. That’s conducive to air flow.”

But Karmel predicted that, even with the modifications, “there is still going to be a certain population that decides it’s just not enough. How big will that group be? I think it’s hard to say right now.”

Jake Rosenberg, a Washington area poker player in his late 20s, and some of the people he plays with are “waiting until things are a bit more normal," he said. “I think it’s best just to wait until we can be confident we are safe.”

Since closing, the casinos have modeled various looks. On a recent morning, Live had placed acrylic partitions at table game stations for blackjack, baccarat and roulette. Behind the clear dividers, the dealers would resemble bank tellers. A “mouse hole” at the bottom would enable the exchange of chips.

The casino intends to limit the number of players sitting at gaming tables and stagger admissions so crowds don’t form.

Contactless thermal cameras were positioned at entry points to scan guests’ body temperatures, many slot machines had been turned off to create space between players, and a supply of disposable, surgical-grade face masks was to be available for guests who neglected the requirement of bringing their own. Staff also will wear masks, and some will have full face shields.

Slot machines, chips, gaming tables and other surfaces will receive “cleaning and sanitizing” more frequently than before, according to a health and safety plan the Live casino has prepared.

Some games will operate, as always, with players not permitted to touch the cards.

“If the game requires players to handle the cards, we will change the cards more frequently,” the casino said in a statement in response to a Baltimore Sun inquiry. “Both dealers and guests have the option to wear gloves, but it is not mandatory.”

Prior to closing, the state’s casinos had proposed reducing the number of patrons allowed in their buildings by 50% to minimize “customer interactions” in response to the outbreak. But they were ordered shut down a day later.

“We would never think of opening at more than 50% capacity,” Cordish said. “We would open by inviting guests. We have everybody’s emails.”

With the rules and modifications, “we’ll be one of the safest businesses in the state,” said Rob Norton, president of Cordish Gaming Group and of Live.

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Other Maryland casinos are taking similar, although not identical, steps. The casinos say their plans may be adjusted based on the governor’s future guidelines.

MGM National Harbor declined interview requests but forwarded a safety plan for MGM Resorts International properties that included temperature screenings, distancing policies and other measures. It said employees would wear masks and guests would be “strongly encouraged” to do so.

Horseshoe Casino Baltimore falls under the umbrella of Caesars Entertainment, which — like other casino companies — proposed a number of protocols emphasizing distancing and cleaning surfaces.

“As we continue to plan for our reopening in Baltimore, we are drawing on the first-hand experience of colleagues who have already reopened Caesars-operated casinos in several markets across the country,” said Randy Conroy, Horseshoe Baltimore senior vice president and general manager. He said the casino would "create a comfortable environment for both our guests and our team members as health and safety remain a priority.”

According to the American Gaming Association, 162 of the 989 commercial and tribal casinos that were closed due to the pandemic have since reopened, as of Friday.

“So far the response has been terrific to the casinos that have reopened,” said Alan Woinski, president of Gaming USA Corp., which publishes industry newsletters. “The real question is how much money can the casinos make with half the number of gaming positions? That question won’t be answered until the end of the summer.”

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