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Are Casinos Safe During the Pandemic? I Went to Several to Find Out

For those who aren’t yet vaccinated, indoor activities are a game of chance.

I have to admit that I was nervous when my girlfriend Luna, a self-described enthusiastic gambler, recently brought up the idea of visiting a casino. Aware of my hesitation, she encouraged me to accompany her as she tried her luck at a couple of casinos in California’s Coachella Valley, just a two-hour drive away. Although I was filled with trepidation, my curiosity reigned and I agreed to join her. But a nagging question remained–by gambling during a pandemic, were we really just rolling the dice on our own safety?

As we strolled around the casino floor at Fantasy Springs in Indio, we passed rows of socially-distanced slot machines and tables filled with players gazing anxiously at their cards. My mind filled with questions. At the top of the list: how safe is it to be playing in casinos right now? How are playing cards and chips handled? The short answer: it depends. After visiting a number of casinos in Southern California and Las Vegas, each property varies in terms of its willingness to follow health and safety protocols.

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Situating ourselves at a slot machine equipped with a seat built for two, I watched as she inserted bill after bill, her fingers poised over the buttons that would bring her closer to her fortune. Her excitement was palpable. Looking around at dozens of hopeful players around us, I realized that she wasn’t alone in this sentiment. With the bright flashing lights, the whir of spinning wheels, and the jubilant beeps and chimes, I could easily understand the allure. But was the appeal of potentially hitting the jackpot worth exposing ourselves to the virus, especially as the pandemic rages on in many areas of the country?

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According to Dr. Kathryn H. Jacobsen, a professor of epidemiology and global health at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, indoor activities during the pandemic are a game of chance for those who are unvaccinated. “When the number of new cases per week at a vacation destination is very high, there is a high probability of contact with someone who has coronavirus infection,” she says. “As more people are vaccinated, the number of weekly cases will drop, which will lower the probability of contact with people who have COVID.”

After getting my feet wet at the Coachella Valley casinos, Luna encouraged me to spend a weekend with her at Temecula’s Pechanga Resort & Casino, the largest casino in California. Pechanga was one of the first two casino resorts (both in California and Nevada) to voluntarily close back in March 2020. Located on federal land and governed by the Pechanga tribal government, it was not the first to reopen. When it did, it eliminated smoking inside the resort and implemented temperature checks for all guests and team members before entering the building.

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As Dr. Jacobsen points out, temperature checks are not very useful for identifying people with COVID, since many who are infected don’t have high fevers even when their infections are contagious. But it did provide some reassurance that safety measures were being taken seriously. In a written statement, Pechanga elaborated on the other health and safety protocols that they have undertaken, including enhanced cleaning and disinfecting of equipment and the implementation of hundreds of hand sanitizing stations throughout the resort. I also noticed that plexiglass safety shields had been installed at all tables and the gaming spaces had been reduced to allow room for social distancing. This included the elimination of buffets from the casino floor.

When asked about how cards and chips are handled, Pechanga clarified that decks of cards are continuously changed out for new ones on a daily basis and value chips are cleaned and sanitized as soon as they are redeemed. Guest capacity at tables is also less than half of what it was before the pandemic. During my time there I noticed that while some guests preferred to stand and watch the table games, the six-feet rule was enforced. I also observed dealers constantly using disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.

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Now that I was no longer a casino newbie, Luna decided to amp things up with a road trip to Las Vegas, which is about a four-hour drive from my home. Knowing that I had a Vegas devotee on my hands, I was almost embarrassed to admit to her that I hadn’t been to Sin City in over 20 years. She had often referred to it as her adult Disneyland, which both intimidated and enticed me. Once again my curiosity won out, as I was interested in evaluating the difference between Pechanga and casinos in Las Vegas.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival is that each casino adheres to its own version of health and safety protocols.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival is that each casino adheres to its own version of health and safety protocols. At Circa, a brand-new casino on Fremont Street, there was a line to get in and an employee dutifully checked IDs. But with these measures in place, I was surprised to discover that there weren’t any partitions at their gaming tables. At casinos along The Strip such as The Venetian, partitions had been installed to reduce contact among tables packed with people. This was the same at other casinos we encountered such as ARIA Resort & Casino, our home for the weekend.

One of my biggest concerns before embarking on our Vegas trip was if smoking would be allowed inside the casinos. According to John Flynn, VP of Administration for MGM Resorts, “Smoking is permitted in certain areas on the casino floor but there are also designated non-smoking areas for slot players and specific table games are also non-smoking.” Aware of those who prefer to avoid smoking altogether, MGM Resorts also reopened Park MGM as Las Vegas’ first all non-smoking resort on The Strip, along with Vdara Hotel & Spa and Delano Las Vegas.

Since there is no uniform method of evaluating the protocols that casinos have developed in order to adhere to pandemic safety, the Center for Disease Control has published considerations for casinos and gaming operations. Not surprisingly, they recommend hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette as well as the use of masks and maintaining a healthy environment with cleaning and disinfection.

1. At Harrah’s Las Vegas, signs are posted reminding guests of their COVID-19 protocols.Kit Leong/Shutterstock; 2. Signs posted inside the New York New York Hotel & CasinoKit Leong/Shutterstock

On the casino floor at ARIA there are not only hand sanitizer stations but also custom-built handwashing stations–actual sinks with water, soap, and paper towels. These are the new norm for MGM Resorts, which debuted its Seven-Point Safety Plan last October. In addition to mandatory masks and personal protective equipment, guests and employees are required to adhere to 6-foot physical distancing policies. MGM also offers touchscreen-free accessories in the form of a personal stylus to gaming guests, which can be used at any of the slot machines across the gaming floor.

Curious as to whether any adjustments were made to the ventilation systems after the start of the pandemic, I inquired with Flynn about this. He asserts that MGM Resorts has always placed a high priority on air quality for their guests and they have reviewed the operation of the HVAC systems to identify additional opportunities to enhance their effectiveness. “Our HVAC systems have been programmed to circulate up to 100% outside fresh air and supply up to 12 air exchanges per hour throughout our properties,” he says.

Bottom line: If you are going to gamble, what is the best way to protect yourself while in a casino? Dr. Jacobsen suggests that “even if COVID safety rules are not being strictly enforced, individuals can choose to reduce their risk of infection by wearing tight-sealing face masks that cover the nose and mouth snugly–not just loose-fitting face coverings that gap at the sides or slides off the nose easily–and maintaining at least several feet of distance from others whenever possible.” For extra precaution, be sure to take a COVID test both before traveling and after you return.