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Some Pa. casinos are open — without poker, buffets, or valet parking

There’s no valet parking, no buffet, and no poker. But you can still smoke while playing the slots. Two casinos in western Pennsylvania are open. It's unknown when the lockdown will lift in Philadelphia.

Plexiglas dividers separate video gaming machines at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh on Monday. The casino re-opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday, operating at 50% capacity to comply with Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board coronavirus protocols.
Plexiglas dividers separate video gaming machines at Rivers Casino in Pittsburgh on Monday. The casino re-opened at 9 a.m. Tuesday, operating at 50% capacity to comply with Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board coronavirus protocols.Read moreAP

There’s no valet parking. The buffet is shut down. Everybody has to wear a face mask. And there’s no poker.

But two casinos in Western Pennsylvania reopened this week after almost three months of being locked down due to the coronavirus pandemic, and COVID-19 restrictions did not deter customers with a pent-up desire to gamble.

“We had about 2½ times our normal Tuesday volume,” said Bill Keena, general manager of Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, which reopened Tuesday along with the Meadows Racetrack and Casino in Washington, which is in Washington County. A third property, the Lady Luck Casino Nemacolin, is set to reopen Friday.

Kevin O’Toole, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board, told the board Wednesday that the reopenings went well.

“Both casinos complied with requirements to limit patronage to no more than 50% capacity,” he said. Casino executives reported almost universal compliance with rules requiring cleanliness and social distancing.

The gaming board last month issued minimum protocols for casino operators to follow as they reopen. The experience of the Western Pennsylvania casinos will set the stage for the gradual reopening of the state’s nine other casinos when those parts of the state enter the “green" phase of Gov. Tom Wolf’s three-phase reopening plan. It’s still unclear when the four casinos in the Philadelphia area will reopen.

The shutdown of the state’s 12 operating casinos and three off-track betting parlors has devastated the industry and cut off a lucrative source of tax revenue for the state. State regulated gaming generates more than $1.5 billion in tax revenue during a typical year, but that was reduced to a trickle from online gaming.

Keena said employees from the Pittsburgh casino’s sister property, Rivers Casino Philadelphia, were on hand in Pittsburgh on Tuesday to observe the reopening and report on lessons learned.

Keena came up with a clever bit of deception to avoid the buildup of long lines outside the property that accompanied casino reopenings in other states: Rivers Casino announced the reopening for 9 a.m. Tuesday, but actually opened its doors at 7 a.m. Many customers who arrived early were able to walk right in.

“That worked to perfection,” Keena said in a telephone interview Wednesday.

“The guests were amazing,” he said. “They stepped up to the plate. There were no issues at all. They socially distanced. They wore their masks.”

A few patrons declined to wear masks for medical reasons, which is permitted under the state guidelines. Smoking is still permitted at some slot machines — not at table games — so guests are allowed to pull down their masks to smoke or to drink a beverage. Cocktails are served with lids.

“I bet it was 99.9% wearing masks,” Keena said.

About 140 stations that dispense hand sanitizer or wipes for cleaning equipment were installed on the casino floor, with 30 more to come. Cleaning crews also make the rounds constantly, wiping down equipment.

Some slot machines were disabled to maintain a safe distance between players. Seating is limited at table games — three players at blackjack, four at roulette, and six at craps tables. Customers are required to use hand sanitizer before they handle chips, and must wear face masks at all times at table games.

The only incident that occurred Tuesday involved a player who declined to use hand sanitizer at a table game. After a supervisor explained that the rule was in place to protect the dealer and other players, the player complied, Keena said.

About 1,050 of the casino’s 1,700 employees returned to work, Keena said. But many workers in shut-down operations such as the buffet, valet parking, and poker rooms remain on furlough, with health-care coverage.

“My intention is to get this place back to normal as quickly as I can, as long as we do it safely,” he said.