Washington State Casino Security Tells Elderly Couple to Remove Face Masks as Coronavirus Strikes Region

Posted on: March 6, 2020, 01:20h. 

Last updated on: March 6, 2020, 02:04h.

Washington state’s Little Creek Casino Resort security staff asked a husband and wife in their 70s to take off their protective face masks this week. It was an apparent effort to enforce security procedures in the Shelton tribal gaming property despite the threat of COVID 19.

Security at Little Creek Casino told an elderly couple to remove protective masks on Wednesday. They wore the masks to protect themselves from coronavirus. (Image: KIRO)

The couple were told by security officers to remove the masks while at the casino on Wednesday night. The wife, Annemarie Owens, has health conditions, according to KIRO TV.

They walked into the casino and “immediately” security staff said take off the masks, Owens recalled in an interview from their home.

You get treated like you’re a dog and warned to take off the masks,” a tearful Annemarie Owens told KIRO. Owens also wore protective gloves at the casino.

She and her husband, John Laine, wore the masks to avoid exposure to the sometimes fatal coronavirus. “We’re senior citizens in our 70s, and that’s when diseases can be more devastating,” Laine explained to KIRO.

As of early Friday, there have been 79 cases of the illness in Washington state. Eleven of those patients died, including several at a Kirkland nursing home.

Washington State Officials Respond

Casino.org contacted state officials for a response to the incident.

“We are aware that some Washington tribal casinos are struggling with how to balance security concerns with public health concerns,” Heather Songer, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission, told Casino.org on Friday.

“Casino policy considers masks to be a security concern and they are not normally allowed,” Songer added. “This is a developing issue and we expect that each casino will address it as needed.”

A spokesman for the Washington State Department of Health said the department does not comment “on an incident in a private business.”  But the department has existing recommendations that people “not wear masks when they are in public.

“Masks can be useful in some settings to prevent someone who has a respiratory illness from spreading it to others. That’s why we recommend that people who are sick put a mask on if they are waiting in a clinic,” the health department statement adds.

But Laine told KIRO that “when you’re dealing with a deadly virus, I think everyone should understand when you’re trying to take precautions to protect yourself.”

While at the casino, an employee who was fixing gaming equipment allegedly sneezed on Owens.

I had spit running down my face,” Owens told KIRO’s Shelby Miller. “Then, he [the worker] said his wife was very ill and now he caught it. The nerve, after they made us take off the masks.”

The couple went to Little Creek because they had gotten a coupon for $250 in free play mailed to their residence, the TV station reported.

KIRO further reported a manager at the casino said employees there cannot wear face masks, though the manager added he — speaking for himself — would not prevent a player from wearing a mask. The casino’s policy on protective masks is going to be reviewed, the manager added.

Staff at Little Creek Casino is cleaning slot machines and gaming tables more frequently to prevent illness. They are cleaned every two hours, KIRO said.

Face Mask Ban Could Be Part of Dress Code: Law Professor

When reached for comment on the incident, Lois Shepherd, a University of Virginia law professor who also heads up UVA’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Humanities program in medicine and law, told Casino.org, “As long as the casino is not discriminating on the basis of certain protected categories — race, disability, gender, etc., then they are probably free to exclude customers for other reasons, like inappropriate dress.

“For example, you might think of this as a dress code requirement that a private business could have,” Shepherd explained.

“Should members of the public have the right to wear a face mask?  Maybe, like on the streets, etc.,” Shepherd added.

“It would be more concerning if the government were telling people they couldn’t wear face masks on the street when people are doing it for health reasons,” she said. “But this is a private business and, as compared to being able to walk on the streets, people don’t have a right to gamble at a particular casino.”

Players and visitors to some gaming properties in Las Vegas and California were sporadically seen with protective masks on their faces in recent days.