Massachusetts Gaming Commission to Review Casino Reopening Plans, Outside Slot Machines Possible

Posted on: May 10, 2020, 04:37h. 

Last updated on: May 11, 2020, 08:17h.

Massachusetts’ three commercial casinos were to submit preliminary reopening plans by this weekend to the state’s Gaming Commission. Commissioners are expected to review the proposals in a public meeting sometime this week.

Massachusetts Gaming Reopening
Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein has stressed public health as the commission works to reopen casinos in the state. (Image: State House News Service/Sam Doran)

Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park Casino were to send their preliminary plans to commission staff by Friday. The gaming commissioners are also following the progress of statewide guidelines from Gov. Charlie Baker’s office and the Massachusetts Reopening Advisory Board.

We are gearing up for the eventual reopening of the casinos,” Karen Wells, the commission’s interim executive director, reported during Thursday’s commission meeting. “When the casinos are ready to reopen, we will be ready to go.”

A commission Restart Working Group is currently developing a reopening policy that includes compliance standards. It will prioritize enhanced sanitation, appropriate training for employees, safe distancing, occupancy limits, and related guidance.

Massachusetts is expecting to reopen some non-essential businesses on May 18. But it appears many enterprises will reopen later, given the state will likely adopt a phased-in reopening process.

Commissioner Enrique Zuniga on Thursday recalled how the commission previously heard an option to offer gaming outside, instead of inside, gaming venues. The concept was presented to the commission to allow slot machines on gaming property grounds, but let players smoke and not violate inside smoking bans. The outdoor concept was never fully reviewed by the commission.

Zuniga told his fellow commissioners that outside gaming, if ever allowed, would require “proper covering” for “inclement weather” and appropriate security. He further explained the outdoor concept is being used by other sectors, such as restaurants, which offer outdoor dining on decks, as they reopen their dining options.

“Perhaps an outside activity is more feasible,” Zuniga said. Cost would also be an issue, he adds.

Outdoor Casino Gaming in Maryland, New York

Other states have outdoor gaming areas. For instance, last May Saratoga Casino Hotel, located in Saratoga Springs, New York, opened an outdoor gaming space. It is 1,800 square feet and provides 50 slot machines in an enclosed terrace.

By using a temperature control system, players can be on the terrace year-round, though the casino is currently shuttered by the pandemic. Building the terrace cost $1 million.

Also, last December, Horseshoe Casino Baltimore opened a $15 million outdoor gaming area measuring more than 10,000 square feet. Known as The Terrace, it has 160 slot machines, 16 table games, 15 video poker machines, and a patio bar, all in a heated patio. The Horseshow Casino Baltimore is also temporarily closed.

During Thursday’s meeting, Commissioner Gayle Cameron also reminded commissioners that she wants to see a reopening plan for the horse-race track at Plainridge Park. The state has suspended harness racing at Plainridge.

The formal reopening date for Massachusetts casinos is unclear. On May 1, the Gaming Commission voted unanimously to extend temporary closures of the state’s casino properties until May 18, given the risk from coronavirus.

“When we first decided to temporarily suspend operations at the state’s three gaming facilities, the Commission and our licensees held a shared view that public health was paramount to all other considerations,” Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said in a statement earlier this month.

“The timeline to reopen is still uncertain; however, our attention is now focused on developing a responsible restart plan and maximizing this time to establish guidelines, in coordination and collaboration with key stakeholders, including the three licensees, state and local leaders, and public health officials,” said Judd-Stein, a former deputy chief legal counsel for the Massachusetts’ governor’s office.

Challenges Exist to Reopen Massachusetts Casinos

When asked for comment on the gaming property reopening process for Massachusetts, the Rev. Richard McGowan, a finance professor at Boston College who closely follows New England gambling trends, identified long-term and short-term challenges.

“MGM in Springfield and Plainridge will be hard-pressed to turn around the downturns they experienced even before COVID-19,” McGowan said. “How the state supports these two ventures remains to be seen.

“As for Encore, it is quite doubtful that 3 million visitors will come when Encore opens again. Perhaps the state will fast-track sports gambling as a help to boost visitations to Encore,” McGowan added.

More immediately, there will have to be fewer players allowed at casinos, according to McGowan. “The employees will have to wear masks and maybe the gamblers will also have to wear masks,” McGowan added.

Clearly, how … the casinos comply with social distancing will be the key issue. There is some talk about plexiglass between slot machines,” McGowan said.

“But Encore’s big draw was its table games,” McGowan added. “How would you set up a blackjack table? Maybe with plexiglass defining each position?”

As of Sunday, Massachusetts saw 77,793 confirmed coronavirus cases. Some 4,979 patients have died.