Ohio’s casinos and racinos will reopen Friday after months of inactivity.
While casino employees and operators are eager to get back to work, public health experts worry about the risk of coronavirus infection in enclosed spaces like a casino floor.
Traditionally, gamblers cluster at table games, and slot machines are side by side. Casino officials say they’ve taken precautions in accordance with Ohio’s reopening guidelines, which encourage social distancing and mask use.
Doctors, however, warn that even the strictest precautions aren’t foolproof.
Gov. Mike DeWine ordered gambling establishments and most other non-essential businesses to close in mid-March to help control a coronavirus outbreak that has killed more than 2,600 Ohioans and sickened more than 42,000 in the past five months.
Come Friday, nearly all casino employees will wear masks, customers gathering around table games will be required to do the same, and casinos will be restricted to half their capacity under fire codes. Gambling machines have been spaced at least 6 feet apart and distance markers have been placed where crowds could gather, said Jennifer Miglionico, vice president of marketing at Hollywood Casino Columbus.
Everyone who enters the casino will be encouraged to wear a mask, she said. Those not wearing masks at table games will be asked to leave.
“All supervisors and managers will be there enforcing these rules,” Miglionico said.
The Ohio Casino Control Commission has staff members at all Ohio casinos to ensure gambling integrity and security in normal times. They will help enforce coronavirus restrictions, but their exact role is still being worked out, said Jessica Franks, communication director for the commission.
A host of other measures are in place, Miglionico said. Patrons, for example, will be asked to run their own ID through a scanner rather than handing it to an employee at the entrance.
The 16-person panel that decided on casino guidelines included 12 casino industry representatives and three health-care professionals.
Dan Reinhard, general counsel for Jack Entertainment, which has a casino and a racino in northeastern Ohio, said the panel drew on existing guidelines in Ohio and other states for consistency.
“We spent a lot of time digging through CDC guidelines, OSHAA guidelines, federal orders and state orders,” said Reinhard, who led the panel. “We were looking at the reopening plans for each industry. So if we have restaurants, let’s follow the restaurant guidelines.”
Public health experts who weren’t involved in those discussions worry the guidelines aren’t strict enough.
“First and foremost, anytime you are congregating with non-household contacts who you haven’t been around during quarantined months, you’re increasing your risk of potential infection,” said Dr. Iahn Gonsenhauser, chief quality and patient safety officer for the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “If you want to mitigate your risk, avoid that environment.”
Coronavirus spreads on droplets released through the nose and mouth, and infects others when those droplets make their way into another person’s eyes or mouth and into their respiratory tract.
Viruses carried on those droplets survive for only a short period of time, hence the recommended 6 feet of social distancing. Basic non-surgical masks have proved only marginally effective at preventing users from breathing in those droplets, but studies have found that face coverings are vastly more effective at catching droplets expelled by the wearer.
“People who are asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic can transmit the virus,” said Dr. Joseph Gastaldo, an infectious disease expert at OhioHealth.
Those without symptoms can spread coronavirus without knowing they are infected, making it vital that everyone in a crowded space wear a mask, he said.
The virus can linger on surfaces, Gastaldo said, which means casinos must be extremely diligent in regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces.
“I would like to know what their cleaning policies look like” in practice, he said.
For casinos, it’s a matter of survival. The establishments have gone three months without revenue, and their employees have been out of work since DeWine closed non-essential businesses.
Even closed, casinos “still have big expenses,” Reinhard said. “Financing payments, there might be rent payment, so they do need to generate the cash to meet their obligations.”
Many casinos furloughed their workers, he added, and it was important to bring those who are unemployed back to work.