BLACK HAWK — It’s been more than three months since Colorado’s casinos closed to limit the spread of COVID-19, and Colleen and Deb Campbell of Johnstown are jonesing for the penny slots.
“We are going through withdrawals and we are ready to get back and play,” says Colleen, who joined her mom among dozens of antsy gamblers waiting for The Lodge Casino to open at 8 a.m. Wednesday.
The line moved quickly, thanks to a thermal scanning camera inside the door at The Lodge, which relayed every visitor’s face and body temperature to a computer screen. If a person was running hot, they were asked to step aside and rest for a moment before repeating the scan. Anyone with a fever was refused entry. Inside the casino, every other machine was dark, allowing players to remain separated. The table games were vacant, per rules issued by Colorado public health officials. An army of bottle-toting employees sprayed and wiped surfaces with abandon.
“We put a lot of time and effort into getting this ready to go,” says J.J. Garcia, The Lodge’s general manager.
Garcia studied the June 4 opening of casinos in Las Vegas and took notes.
“I wish we could have opened earlier, too, but we were able to learn from the casinos in Vegas and these temperature stations was one of the things we learned,” he says early Wednesday as the machine swiftly scanned the line of dozens in less than a minute. “They were stopping people for hours. There were hour-long waits to get in the casinos. We are following county guidelines, but we took it a step further with these thermal scans.”
Since Colorado’s 35 casinos shut down March 16, the state has seen a critical source of revenue evaporate. Last March, April and May, gamblers at casinos in Cripple Creek, Central City and Black Hawk lost $213.5 million, providing Colorado with $38.92 million in gambling taxes. The state collected a little more than $5 million in gambling taxes in the first two weeks of March, and zero in April and May. The disappearance of nearly $34 million in gambling taxes has wreaked havoc on the state’s budget, where lawmakers spent the past month slashing nearly $3 billion from the coming year’s spending plan.
Leroy Morales came up from Lakewood with his mom on Wednesday. He’s playing a video slot machine. He’s not sure what it’s called.
“Something with buffalos,” he says.
He slipped a $20 into the machine a few minutes earlier and he’s up more than $200, playing a bonus round of several games at one time. The machine is whirling and clanging and he’s grinning.
“My luck is good so far,” he says.
Morales usually brings a couple hundred bucks up to the casinos. This time he brought $400.
“It’s been a while since I’ve played,” he says, casually pressing a button on the machine.
In January, he turned $500 into $4,000, but the casinos took that back in February and early March, he says.
“My goal today is to end up with $1,000,” he says. “I’m a slow gambler, but this feels good today.”
Monarch Casino and Resort CEO David Farahi says visitor numbers are down but “but the play is solid,” at his casino in Reno, Nevada.
“There is some pent-up demand. That’s what we are seeing here,” he says on Wednesday in Black Hawk, where he is weeks away from opening a 23-story hotel resort and expanded casino.
Like Garcia at The Lodge, Farahi learned a few things watching his casino open in Reno.
“A million different things, really,” he says, pointing to markers on the colorful carpet in the Monarch Casino Black Hawk that show where people need to stand to avoid close proximity to others in lines. “It sounds silly, but we needed really bright markers to contrast with the carpet.”
He’s also arranged banks of slot machines in circles to keep people separated. A team of cleaners is patrolling the casino, wiping everything. A man at the entrance scans foreheads with a temperature reader. Farahi hopes that casinos can prove to public health officials that they can operate safely when those officials reevaluate the industry in late June. If all goes well, the casinos could see table games reopening by the end of the month.
Farahi, sharp in a crisply pressed suit, greets his guest and employees with a “welcome back.” Most return his greeting with heartfelt thanks.
“We have 10,000 people in this industry in Colorado who count on their paycheck. So we have to get open,” he says.
Up the road from the sprawling casinos in Black Hawk, Michael is the only person in line at Central City’s Dostal Alley Casino and Brewpub, the smallest casino in Colorado. He’s got hand sanitizer in his pocket and an empty growler in his hand.
“I remember when all these streets were dirt and there were peanuts all over the floors in the casinos in Black Hawk,” says the 70-year-old Evergreen resident who declined to give his last name. “It’s different down there now. This place feels the same. It’s my favorite spot up here. I missed the atmosphere and I missed the people who own this place and I missed the IPA. And I got a little tired of playing scratch tickets.”
Inside, CinDee Spellman is finishing up a final cleaning of her family’s casino, pizzeria and brewery. She’s got a clipboard with questions she needs to ask every visitor about potential signs of illness and wristbands for those who pass the temperature scan.
“Pretty much every job description in here has changed. We’re a small operation, so we are used to multitasking, but now we are really taking multitasking to the next level,” says Spellman, whose parents opened Dostal Alley 29 years ago. Today, her sister manages the casino. Her brother brews the beer. She does the books.
They’ve pulled out 23 slot machines, leaving 31 open for play. They weathered the shutdown by selling pizzas and craft beer out the back door. And they were able to collect federal stimulus money to help pay employees during the closure.
“We made it happen,” she says.
Central City is hoping to collect some of that federal stimulus money available in the latest iteration of the CARES Act. The city has lost somewhere between $590,000 and $640,000 in the past three months, largely from waiving device fees at the city’s six casinos. Those annual per-device fees paid by casinos were meant to help Colorado’s three gambling towns offset the impacts of gambling and all three cities waived portions of those annual fees during the shutdown. In Black Hawk, device fees account for more than $700,000 a month for the city.
“The cities are not in the business of making money, but we have bills that come with casinos,” says Central City Mayor Jeremy Fey, who was strolling through downtown minutes before four of the six casinos in town opened on Wednesday.
“We were the only one of the three cities to even discuss not waiving device-fee rebates,” he says. “Black Hawk and Cripple Creek said yes and returned device fees. I mean, our bills don’t go away just because we don’t have customers.”