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Reopening New Hampshire casinos a gamble full of risk

By Will Parke - Guest Columnist | Jun 13, 2020

For four years, I have been blessed to work in New Hampshire’s charitable gaming industry, and even more privileged to have spent a year and a half managing the staff at the highest grossing casino in the state. It’s an industry filled with memorable characters on both sides of the gaming tables – not just livened with bawdy humor and casual camaraderie, but filled with a shocking spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.

It is an industry that absolutely cannot be allowed to reopen during the summer of COVID-19.

On May 27, the Governor’s Economic Re-Opening Task Force approved draft guidance for charitable gaming operations. The draft guidance was posted mere hours before the Task Force’s vote, with no apparent consideration of previous public comments on the issue and no time for comment on the final draft. For the most part, the Task Force’s final recommendation followed the perplexing recommendations made during the May 13 industry presentation by Jim Rafferty and Lisa Withrow of Nashua’s River Casino and Chaser’s Poker Room in Salem, respectively. This guidance was not only vague but in many cases implausible.

Non-gamblers may think of casinos like restaurants, but in fact the dynamics and traffic are very opposite from most service-based businesses. At a restaurant, a group arrives together, sits together, and leaves together within an hour or two, waited on by one or two staff for the duration of their stay. Gamblers often arrive singly or in small groups that may disperse to multiple games. Regular gamblers will plan to play for several hours – poker players regularly log sessions of 8 or 10 hours at a time – and not only will they move between games, the staff are rotated from one game to another every half hour. Gambling invariably involves the exposure of relative strangers to each other for prolonged periods of time, with many staff coming into contact with players during their stay.

There is no standard casino business that observes any minimum standard of social distancing. Chaser’s Poker Room boasts the largest tables in the state, at eight and a half feet long; under the industry and state recommendations, there would be seven people seated at these tables, including the dealer, leaving barely three feet between players for hours at a time. The Task Force gaming guidance follows the Governor’s Universal Guidance to mark and suggest six feet of social distancing for five minute queues at bathrooms and while purchasing chips, but leaves players seated shoulder-to-shoulder for hours at gaming tables still sitting two-thirds or more capacity.

This is one of the perplexing points of Mr. Rafferty’s testimony. He claimed that blackjack tables may seat up to eight players at a time. In the three card rooms that I’ve worked, no blackjack or similar table game has seated more than five or six players at a time. While Las Vegas’ aggressive gaming recommendations moved to cut player capacity by 50%, New Hampshire’s recommendations of six players to a poker table, four for blackjack and similar games, barely represents a one-third reduction in player capacity per game, and utterly ignores the simple six foot distancing rule recommended by health professionals around the world.

Roulette tables, notorious for players jostling and running over each other, are limited to six players along one side of a ten-foot table – the same number of players each table is typically equipped to handle! No extra guidance is given on how to manage the game to eliminate players’ crossing each others’ space and handling each others’ chips while placing and replacing bets.

Another of the perplexing points of the industry recommendation was to eliminate “touchpoints” by restricting the purchase and redemption of chips to the cage window. This is variously unrealistic and irrelevant. Chips are only exchanged for cash at the cage. Games like roulette and craps have non-cash markers unique to each table to identify each player and are purchased at the specific gaming table, then redeemed for cash-value chips. At most other games like blackjack, chip purchases represent less than 10 percent of all transactions, with wins and losses representing the majority of transfers. A single chip can be passed a dozen times between a dealer and multiple players within a single half-hour, as hands are lost and won and the difference changed out of the table’s chip tray. Regardless of insufficient distancing, every player and dealer at a game will be passing the same tokens back and forth.

It’s ridiculous to imagine that chips will be changed out or completely Sanitized after every hand of cards, or even that every tray will be changed and cleaned with the half-hour dealer rotations. Nonetheless, the draft guidance suggests that staff “[d]isinfect any tools […] anytime the equipment is transferred to a different employee.” This would require replacing every chip tray in the room, as well as discarding and replacing every deck of cards in the room, every half hour at the dealer rotation. Dealers have always rotated between decks, but without a previously unseen cleaning solution, rotating to completely sanitary, untouched decks every half hour would mean throwing out a couple hundred plastic decks of cards every day – over a thousand dollars a day in new operating costs. This guidance is at best a bandaid, and at worst purely an aspirational statement denying many of the basic operations of a casino.

These sorts of concerns seem less significant with comprehensive screening of staff and players. The personal interview and inventory requirements are unrealistic and ignore the predominant scientific consensus that possibly 40% of the transmission of the novel coronavirus could be due to non-symptomatic infected individuals, whether non- or pre-symptomatic. Add to that the presence of skeptical players and financially insecure staff simply with a “smoker’s cough” or fatigue due to a bad night’s sleep. Fever may present in only half of all Covid-19 cases. With even a reduced capacity of a few dozen players, a small casino could easily pass a perfectly healthy-seeming but contagious individual to spend hours around forty or fifty players and staff, with only recommendations to distance themselves.

The state does mandate that staff wear masks (as well as sanitize at their half-hour rotations), highlighting another strange inconsistency in the guidance. According to the current medical understanding, staff wear masks prophylactically in order to protect the guests. No similar requirement is placed upon the customers, though. In the constantly rotating environment of a casino, this is at best a band-aid covering up the unavoidable danger to casino staff. Evidence shows not just transmission of the coronavirus by coughing or sneezing, but aerosolized through speech or breath. Additionally, Chinese studies have found evidence of viral transmission through air ducts and HVAC systems.

While social distancing and disinfection provide basic protection for brief interactions, groups of people confined together for extended periods of time will infect each other. Reopening New Hampshire casinos presents a risk to potential players. Barring special waivers, casino employees called back to work at reopening will be denied further unemployment benefits and be compelled to return to work for a fraction of their previous tipped wages, despite the risk to themselves and their families, or else find themselves with no income at all. They would be returning to a workplace where, for all the supposed protective measures in place, only the employees are acting under strict guidelines, while players at best are recommended to obey distancing and hygiene requirements.

This is the central concern- not just that New Hampshire’s gaming population is affected, but that it becomes a significant vector for a second wave of COVID transmission. In the event of an early reopening, there are three chief issues:

Contrary to Mr. Rafferty’s statements, the core demographic of any casino is not “younger males,” 25-45, playing at the end of the day. The bread-and-butter of the social gaming business, showing up for lunch and often staying through dinner, are older players with disposable income. US income peaks in the 45-54 year old age bracket, and net worth only rises, passing a quarter million dollars in median wealth over age 74. As a novice dealer, the first names I learned were the retired players that I would see at the same time of day five to seven days a week. The day-in,day-out players at these social casinos are in the highest risk demographic: mid-fifties and up, retired or self-employed, stopping in after work or on days off to socialize.

Second, for years the New Hampshire gaming market was buoyed by traffic from Massachusetts; New Hampshire charitable gaming saw as much as a 30% dip in revenue after the opening of Encore Boston Harbor. In the event that New Hampshire casinos reopen before those in Mass, we can expect to see players coming over the border. Massachusetts has had one of the worst coronavirus breakouts in the country, third in total cases per capita, concentrated in the greater Boston area that for years fed players into poker rooms in Salem, Nashua, and even Manchester. Reopening NH casinos while Mass is still under a general shutdown invites greater traffic and a fresh wave of infections.

Lastly, even in the event that players in the highest-risk categories responsibly self-excluded themselves through the pandemic and if traffic were restricted to NH residents, we’re left with the question: Who would we reopen for? The primary customer-base for an early reopening would be compulsive gamblers, people likely to ignore safety precautions for their own well being or that of those around them.

Early opening ultimately presents us with two scenarios: A return of the previous casino demographic, inviting an immediate outbreak among the high-risk population connected with older players, or minimal turnout dominated by problem gamblers and others uninterested in observing safe social distancing principles. Even with perfect adherence to the industry-backed task force guidelines, casino workers and their families are put in jeopardy with meager safety precautions.

These businesses would be reopening to operate with dramatically higher costs for a fraction of their previous revenue, meaning significantly reduced funding to the benefiting charities and drastically reduced pay for employees. Simultaneously, reopening these facilities presents an immediate health risk to the community as a whole.

The point of phased reopening is to contain risks while bringing beneficial services back into the community. Casinos provide no essential service of any kind. Especially while operating at a reduced capacity, it’s hard to see any benefit in an early return of gambling activity. Whatever the opinions of a few business owners, it’s hard to see any pay-off for New Hampshire from this gamble.

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