It’s been about six weeks since the coronavirus pandemic forced businesses around the country to close their doors. The list of affected companies includes almost every casino in the US, with owners and customers alike now wondering when it will be safe to resume land-based gambling.
Some states, like Nevada, are in a bigger hurry to get their entertainment industries back up and running than others. While opinions vary on the best way to proceed, most experts agree that it will likely take some time before things fully return to normal.
By the time they do, we may find that “normal” isn’t quite the same as it used to be.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. COVID-19 has exposed a number of major flaws in the way we do things as a society. By the same token, it represents an opportunity to learn and improve.
In order to reopen safely, casinos will have to find ways to change their environment and procedures to reduce the risk of contagion. That should make them safer for their customers in the long run and limit both the economic damage and loss of life from other future outbreaks.
Here are some of the measures that casinos and related businesses have been using or proposing toward that end.
If casinos are going to reopen in a limited way, they will naturally want to concentrate on the aspects of their business that provide the highest return for the lowest overhead. That means slot machines.
Conveniently, this is one way in which economic and health incentives line up. Slot machines aren’t only highly profitable for casinos; they also represent an environment that is easier to control than other aspects of their business.
There’s no need for chips, for one thing, nor for paper money to be passed from one set of human hands to another. There’s only one player per machine and no dealer. Players mostly stay put and, although they use their hands, it’s mostly only to push the same few buttons.
Gaming screens and buttons are made of smooth glass and plastic and are, therefore, easier to clean than table felt and textured casino chips. There’s also typically some downtime for a given machine between one player and the next. That gives staff a chance to perform cleaning after each player.
The main downside to slot machines is their tight spacing. This problem can be remedied, however, by keeping every second machine shut down — or perhaps even two out of every three. Business is likely to be slow at first, so it’s just a matter of making sure the players who do show up are forced to spread out.
Suppliers of casino management systems (CMS) are already looking for ways to help casinos separate their players. One example is Table Trac, which has been working on what it describes as a “portfolio of solutions” to help casinos encourage social distancing.
Casinos already use such systems to track the usage of their machines and streamline various aspects of their business. These can control signage, activate and deactivate individual machines, display dynamic data on the casino’s website, and so forth.
Table Trac is now working on adapting its existing CasinoTrac CMS to handle hygiene- and distancing-related planning.
Here’s how it could work. Instead of simply keeping every second slot machine offline, casinos can have all machines turned on by default. Once a player sits down to begin a session; however, nearby machines automatically turn off. When the player gets up, the system turns the other machines back on and alerts staff to clean the one that was used.
Though it would be better for casinos’ bottom lines if all their players preferred slots to other options, that’s not the case. Even a partial reopening has to include some table games.
Tables inevitably mean physical proximity, however. Having a flesh-and-blood dealer to interact with is a large part of the appeal of live table games over slots or online play.
Reducing the number of seats per table is one obvious way of mitigating the risk. A typical blackjack table, for instance, seats from five to seven players. Removing every second seat leaves room for three or four.
Tables with the lowest limits also tend to be the most crowded. Casinos might, therefore, temporarily raise their minimum bets in order to deter crowds, shorten session lengths, and increase revenue per customer during this intentionally low-volume period.
One partial solution for casinos is the same you’ve probably seen at your local supermarket or drug store. Plexiglass shields can be installed in key positions to protect staff from infection by customers and vice versa.
A video aired by the Fox News affiliate in Las Vegas shows that such devices are already being set up in at least one casino. The video was taken at Margaritaville Casino in Bossier City, Louisiana, and originally shared on social media by gaming professional Joe Bunevith.
The system appears to be intended for blackjack tables and has both a semicircular barrier between the dealer and players and smaller barriers between individual seats. A space of about one foot between the felt and the bottom edge of the barricade allows players to place their bets.
It’s also possible that we could see similar barriers separating individual machines in banks of slots.
Before shutting down, the Encore Boston Harbor Casino introduced the unusual measure — at least by US standards — of temperature screening.
Guests showing flu-like symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, or sweating had their temperature taken by staff using non-contact digital thermometers. Those with a significant fever were asked to leave and seek medical attention.
Though this approach may prove useful, there are a few problems. For one thing, the method is intrusive and has to be performed on an individual basis. Infrared cameras can indeed detect fever but only by capturing an image of the person’s eyes and forehead at close range.
Screening everyone unobtrusively as they come in the door isn’t technologically feasible. It also raises concerns about medical consent.
More importantly, though, COVID-19 is among the diseases that are most contagious in its early stages. Studies have shown that patients shed the virus in the largest quantities before they develop a fever. Compared to other safeguards, the safety provided by fever monitoring might, therefore, be largely illusory.
CMS companies aren’t the only business-to-business outfits looking for ways to help out and turn a profit in these times of pandemic. There are third parties dedicated to cleaning casino equipment, particularly the chips used to make wagers.
Prior to the shutdown, these companies were already doing a booming business. Once casinos begin to reopen, they may be busier still. Many casinos go on using the same chips for years — decades — even after they’re visibly filthy.
The trouble, of course, is that unlike wiping down the buttons of a slot machine, cleaning chips is tedious, fussy business when done by hand. Dedicated chip-cleaning businesses have special machines to facilitate the process.
Public pressure in the aftermath of COVID-19 may force casinos to purchase such machines for their use and clean their chips on a more-regular basis themselves.
That might be bad news for the niche chip-cleaning industry. It would be a big benefit to casino customers, however, even at times when they’re not worried about catching anything worse than a cold.
One thing that a few of these measures have in common is that they rely on new products or outside services.
There are some things casinos can do on their own, like physically separating their tables and machines. However, there’s a lot of potential for B2B companies to develop and market useful new products.
Chip cleaning services and CMS products are the early examples, but we’ll likely see more ideas thrown against the wall as well. New problems require new solutions, which means new opportunities.
That’s the thin silver lining in times of crisis, such as the one the world currently faces.