Communities that are home to Colorado’s casinos are forging ahead with plans to reopen, even as they struggle to understand exactly how they get approval to do so.
Government and business leaders in Gilpin County have submitted a 50-page request for a variance from the state’s “safer-at-home” restrictions so the pinging of slot machines can rev up again. Teller County will likely resubmit its request to open the casinos, which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment rejected in late May.
“I think we have a really, really solid plan for allowing the casinos to open for everything from the capacity on the floor, what kinds of things have to be checked as people are coming in to what kinds of controls you have on the (slot) machines and the table games,” said Gilpin County Commissioner Ron Engels.
The plan even addresses closing off the appropriate number of urinals in the men’s bathrooms “to maintain social distancing,” Engels said.
While confident of their plans, Engels and Teller County Commissioner Marc Dettenrieder are less sure about the right route for getting approval to reopen the casinos. The state’s response to Teller County’s request for variances said bars and casinos aren’t allowed to open and that the state would issue guidance soon.
However, Gov. Jared Polis indicated in a May 26 news conference that it is up to the counties to recommend plans for reopening.
“There are no plans to reopen casinos at this time and (the state health department) will review all variance requests as they are received,” Conor Cahill, the governor’s spokesman, said in an email.
Teller County is seeking clarification from the governor’s office, the state Division of Gaming and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Dettenrieder said.
“We were a little confused. We are in the process of looking at a potential new variance request specific to casinos,” he added.
The CDPHE approved the county’s request to reopen restaurants, gyms and other facilities and included several conditions.
“It’s kind of a hot potato right now about where the approval is going to come from for the casinos to open,” said Matt Andrighetti, the general manager at Wildwood Casino in Cripple Creek.
Despite the uncertainty, Andrighetti said Wildwood is preparing to open. People’s temperatures will be taken before entering. The casino has invested in ultraviolet light equipment for disinfection. Cleaning crews will move from one section of the casino to another throughout the day. Crews will keep slot machines, chairs and other such “high-touch” areas as rails and elevator buttons clean.
“We have been in constant contact with our players, our customers, our employees and there’s definitely a lot of pent-up demand,” Andrighetti said. “We’re looking forward to a reopening for sure, but we also want to make sure that we do it in a responsible manner and that anything that we do isn’t go to incite a large outbreak.”
The casinos in Black Hawk and Central City have also been busy with preparations and are starting to bring back workers, Engels said. Gilpin County’s variance request, sent to the CDPHE May 26, includes the recommendation that each casino limit its occupancy to 30% of the capacity allowed by the fire code.
Engels anticipated getting an answer from the state in a few days. Closure of the casinos as part of statewide restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19 has dealt the communities a huge economic blow, the commissioner said.
“Of the people who work in Gilpin County, 90% work in casinos. There are a lot of people who come up from the metro area,” Engels said. “About 5,500 work in Black Hawk and about 600 in Central City. That’s over 6,000 people who are pretty much out of a job.”
The county’s unemployment was 23% in April, the second highest behind Pitkin County at 23.1%, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.
Dettenrieder said close to 1,500 people in Teller County work for the casinos. The town of Cripple Creek has been hit the hardest, he said.
“The casinos, in my mind, have a lot of resources. They can deploy those resources to ensure the guidelines are put in place and acted upon,” Dettenrieder said.
The fallout from casinos shutting down has rippled out from the gambling communities across Colorado. The state garnered $12.2 million in taxes in March 2019 from the 30-some casinos, but only $5 million this March. The casinos were open just 16 days last month.
For more than two months, CinDee Spellman, her sister and brother have kept the family-owned Dostal Alley and Brew Pub in Central City open by offering take-out fare. She hopes to bring back as many of the 19 employees on furlough who feel comfortable returning.
“We pretty much have daily conversations about reopening,” Spellman said. “We can probably turn on every third machine for social distancing. We’re redoing our floor plan so that we can accommodate that.
“I’m very much looking forward to getting the doors open again, but doing it in a way that’s safe for everybody,” Spellman added.