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Colorado casinos are expecting high demand as they reopen next week with a host of coronavirus changes

The state’s larger casinos in Black Hawk hope to welcome more than 175 gamblers, the cap set by state health officials for indoor capacity. Gambling tables won’t be allowed.

Darkened gaming machines are pictured inside the Ameristar Black Hawk casino, shuttered due to statewide coronavirus orders, on April 27, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Colorado’s casinos will start reopening next week, but the opening for gambling halls idled since mid-March won’t include big crowds or table games. 

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Cripple Creek’s 12 casinos will open June 15 and the 23 casinos in Central City and Black Hawk will open June 17 after shutting down because of the coronavirus more than two months ago. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment on Sunday granted variance requests allowing Gilpin and Teller counties to open their casinos.

State health director Jill Hunsaker Ryan approved Gilpin County’s 50-page variance request on Sunday, but tempered the county’s hopes for a swift return by prohibiting table games and capping the number of gamblers at 175 “in a confined indoor space.”

Teller County officials had asked the state health department for a variance allowing it to open its casinos in May but the health department declined, keeping bars and gambling halls closed while allowing the county to open restaurants and gyms. 

Monarch’s Black Hawk casino is pictured from Colorado 119 on April 27, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gilpin County casinos and officials had knocked around the idea that maybe the smaller casinos could open a few days before the larger halls in Black Hawk, as a way to help give the independent operators a head start in making up lost revenue. But after watching casinos open in Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada last week, they decided it was best to open everything at once. 

“When casinos opened in other states, they all saw huge pent-up demand. People were standing in line at the doors,” said Gilpin County Commissioner Ron Engels. “We did not want our smaller casinos overrun the day they opened, so everyone agreed that the 17th for everyone was going to be a better solution.”

EARLIER: Colorado casinos went bust when coronavirus hit. Here’s why they see a lucky streak ahead.

At first glance, the state health department’s cap of 175 indoor gamblers troubled the owners of the state’s largest casinos, like the 1,250-slot machine, 523-room Ameristar Casino Resort or the 1,200 slot-machine Monarch Casino Resort Spa. With massive gambling halls spread across multiple floors, the larger casinos can easily maintain the health department’s rule for 28 square feet per visitor with many more guests than 175. 

“It’s not 175 per building. So each floor could be a confined indoor space,” said David Fahari, the chief operating officer of Monarch Casino Resort, which also has a casino that opened in Reno last week. 

Fahari said his team was configuring layouts that could keep gamblers socially distanced while hosting many more than 175. His casino in Reno saw eager guests ready to return to the slots and tables last week when Nevada officials allowed gambling to return. 

The darkened, empty casino floor of the Ameristar Black Hawk casino, shuttered due to statewide coronavirus orders, is pictured on April 27, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“I think we will see more of the same here in Colorado,” Fahari said. “We are spending the next 10 days training and testing our teams so we can make everything as safe as possible for our guests and employees.”

The state’s approval of casino openings includes limits of 50% of the allowed occupancy not to exceed 175 indoors or 250 outdoors. Employees must be monitored for symptoms. Facilities and buses must be regularly cleaned and the closing of slots can’t intentionally improve the odds in favor of the house. Gambling tables are not allowed but public health officials will revisit table games in three weeks. 

“I appreciate your thoughtful approach to these challenging issues,” Hunsaker Ryan wrote to both Teller and Gilpin county officials.

In Gilpin County, where only five people have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the casino opening could be rescinded with more positive cases. If the county sees only two unlinked cases in a two-week period and cannot eliminate those cases in two weeks, the variance is rescinded. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Colorado’s casinos delivered $38.92 million taxes to Colorado in March, April and May last year as gamblers lost $213.5 million. This March, casinos were open 16 days and paid $5.1 million in gambling taxes after taking in $31.9 million from losing gamblers. 

There were zero gambling taxes paid in April and maybe a pittance was paid by freshly legalized online sports-betting operations in May, when casinos remained closed. That decline of nearly $34 million in gambling taxes since casinos closed in mid-March has wreaked havoc on the state’s budget. 

The pandemic’s impact on casinos has yet to be seen. In the past month, some smaller casinos have worried they might not survive the shutdown. 

“That’s been a huge concern, particularly for the smaller casinos but I have not heard of any that are not going to reopen,” said Peggi O’Keefe with the Colorado Gaming Association. “I’m hopeful that folks will be able to make up for lost ground. It’s a 50% occupancy cap, so I’m hoping that’s enough for even our smaller casinos to get their employees back and get customers back up. We feel really comfortable that the plan we have in place will be successful and we will be able to educate them to the new rules and regulations.”


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