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Hoping to tap pent-up demand but stay safe, Maryland casinos opt for ‘soft launches’ over splash

Table games dealer SoonChon offers a guest a spritz of hand sanitizer upon her arrival to the roulette table during the Horseshoe Casino's reopening Friday for its rewards members.
Table games dealer SoonChon offers a guest a spritz of hand sanitizer upon her arrival to the roulette table during the Horseshoe Casino's reopening Friday for its rewards members. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Maryland casinos are gambling there is enough pent-up demand to ever so slowly invite customers back to gambling floors modified to guard against spread of the coronavirus.

Horseshoe Casino Baltimore opened its doors early Friday for its top-tier customers, and planned to invite the general public in Sunday. Live Casino & Hotel in Anne Arundel County opens to the public Monday following more than a week of limited access for rewards members.

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Velma Marshall, 67, of Baltimore, was among a few hundred gamblers who lined up Friday outside Horseshoe before the Russell Street casino opened at 8 a.m. The state ordered the closing of Maryland’s six casinos as of March 16 to control the spread of the highly contagious virus.

Marshall came prepared with a mask — they’re required — and a promotional coupon from Horseshoe for $50 in free slots play.

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“When this pandemic started, I already decided that we’re going to be wearing masks for awhile, so get used to it,” Marshall said as she settled in front of a penny slots machine. “I said, ‘Let me go get my free slot play and see if I can win something.‘”

She was quickly up a couple of hundred dollars.

The hope of Maryland’s casinos and the state is that — with major sporting leagues and movie theaters still closed due to the pandemic — people are starved for entertainment and confident that precautions such as masks and distancing can keep them safe in a spacious indoor environment.

“Customers really have no place to spend their money right now,” said Gordon Medenica, director of the State Lottery & Gaming Control Agency.

That helps explain, he said, why lottery sales, which were down more than 20% during the beginning of the pandemic in March and April “have just come back gangbusters. Last week, for example, sales were up 21%,” Medenica said Thursday during a meeting of the State Lottery & Gaming Control Commission.

Casino money is important to Maryland’s budget. Casinos generated $717.5 million for the state during the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2019.

This year’s take looks very different. With the current fiscal year ending Tuesday, Medenica said the state’s share will be down about $190 million, or more than 20%. As gloomy as that sounds, it is brighter than estimates a few months ago, when it wasn’t certain casinos would reopen by July.

The absence of casino revenue since mid-March will hurt Maryland’s education trust fund — where the bulk of the state’s cut goes — as well as community grants and the horse racing industry. The Maryland Racing Commission estimates it has lost as much as $4 million a month that it normally would use to supplement purses and for breeding programs.

With a lot riding on their success, typically splashy casinos are uncharacteristically reopening in Maryland with “soft launches” for rewards members during morning hours that usually attract relatively few customers. That allows the businesses to cater to their best customers, reorient staff and guarantee they can operate without long lines.

“We want to walk before we run with all our new protocols,” including social distancing guidelines and touchless temperature scans as guests enter, said Randy Conroy, Horseshoe’s general manager.

There were more than 120 hand sanitizer dispensers on the gambling floor.

Gamblers, accustomed to breezing into the building, encountered a different procedure Friday. The carpet leading onto the gambling floor was dotted with reminders to stay 6 feet apart as they lined up. With limited admission Friday, that was not a problem.

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As guests approached the gambling floor, they paused for a body temperature scan. A moment later, they were asked to briefly remove their masks so they could be photographed for security purposes with their faces fully visible.

With so few people in the building, the mood seemed subdued. There were no crowds around craps or roulette tables, and none of the usual shouts when a player hit a slots jackpot. The players just seemed to go about their business, pausing occasionally to rub sanitizer on their hands or reach into bright red buckets marked “Slot Machine Sanitizing Wipes.”

There’s some good revenue news from other states, where casinos reopened earlier, and demand has been robust.

We spent a lot of time doing financial models and they were all wrong. Results have been significantly better than expected,” said Jorge Perez, who oversees eight casinos for MGM Resorts, some of which already have opened.

Perez is president of MGM National Harbor in Prince George’s County, which is Maryland’s largest casino and opens to the public Monday.

But COVID-19 cases have been rising in other states, such as Nevada, where Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak ordered masks to be worn beginning Friday in public indoor spaces, specifically including casinos. In Maryland, the number of newly confirmed cases has ebbed, plateauing now under well under 500 cases a day; the state reported 338 new cases Friday.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan restricted Maryland casinos to no more than 50% of occupancy when he permitted them to reopen as early as June 19. Because casinos are so vast, that still could mean a lot of guests.

At Horseshoe, Conroy said 50% would amount to 3,400 people. The numbers of slot machines have been cut in half — from 2,100 to 1,050 — and the numbers of table game positions also trimmed.

At MGM National Harbor in Oxon Hill, Perez said about 4,200 people could be accommodated under the new limits.

Maryland’s other casinos — Hollywood Casino in Perryville, Rocky Gap Casino Resort in Cumberland and Ocean Downs near Ocean City — reopened last week.

“It’s really good to be able to get back open and see people in the resort,” said Skylar Dice, vice president and general manager of Rocky Gap. “It was getting a little too much like ‘The Shining’ every day over there,” added Dice, referring to the 1980 horror film depicting a nearly empty hotel.

Casinos in Maryland and around the country don’t look quite the same as returning guests remember.

Thermal cameras await many guests to gauge their temperatures unobtrusively. Some casinos have installed clear dividers to protect players and dealers at table games. There are disposable face masks and signs with messages such as “Practice Social Distancing” and “Cough and Sneeze into your Elbow.”

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Horseshoe’s Conroy said it’s hard to predict how the public will respond.

“We don’t quite know, to be honest with you,” he said. “But I’m hopeful that people are wanting to get out and have some fun again.”

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