Last Friday, Gov. Sununu outlined what seemed to be the second phase of New Hampshire’s economic reopening from the COVID-19 shutdown. The updated Stay Home 2.0 plan includes guidance for a half dozen industries to resume operation, but easily another dozen are awaiting implementation of guidance to reopen, from indoor sports to acupuncturists, and even New Hampshire’s charitable casinos. As a four-year casino employee and former manager, I must say that charitable gaming must stay at the back of the line during this phased reopening.
In short, there is no casino business that is compatible with meaningful social distancing. Charitable gaming is inherently a social enterprise. Every part of the gaming experience involves exchanging items and close conversation, all between a constantly rotating cast of staff and strangers. The casual gambler is looking for an evening out of snacks, drinks, and conversation; the more serious gambler is looking for five or six hours at the table, coming into contact with a dozen different dealers and an endless stream of competition or fellow players.
If the intent behind a phased economic reopening is to systematically assess the effects of progressively reduced social distancing measures, then reopening casinos in any early phase is jumping directly into the deep end, inviting a population to interact closely and dangerously from the very outset.
At the end of May, the Governor’s Economic Re-opening Task Force rushed through a unanimous vote on draft guidance for reopening New Hampshire charitable gaming businesses. The guidance largely followed a May 13 industry presentation. The guidance further showed no trace of the concerns voiced by industry workers during teleconferenced and emailed public comment in the intervening weeks (including mine), and the document was made available only hours before the vote, with no opportunity for comment on the final draft.
The industry-recommended procedures are vague and unrealistic, given the regular operation of a casino. A recommendation to “disinfect any tools and equipment [...] transferred to a different employee” at half-hour dealer rotations realistically could mean throwing out hundreds of decks of cards every day.
The guidelines propose reducing “touch points” by requiring players to purchase chips only at the cage, neglecting that these purchases represent less than 10 percent of all chip transfers. Like cards, a single chip can pass between multiple players and the dealer a dozen times within a half hour at any table, and many chips will remain on a table all day without ever being cashed out. Even with an accelerated cleaning and sterilization schedule on all redeemed chips, the majority of chips in play will be handled by many players and dealers before being sanitized.
While paying lip service to social distancing, the recommendations would leave barely 3 feet of distance between players and employees by seating seven people at an 8-foot-long poker table. This puts the gaming industry guidelines in direct conflict with the governor’s universal guidelines to maintain a 6-foot distance between employees and customers. Six-foot distancing for five minutes at the chip counter seems insignificant compared to sitting next to a half dozen players and staff for five hours at the card table.
Standard casino operation rotates employees through all of the games in the room, exposing any one dealer to most or all of the clientele that visit. This makes casinos a uniquely problematic industry when dealing with an airborne pathogen, and one-sided mask requirements do little to prevent charitable casinos from becoming centers for new outbreaks. The task force’s recommendation does exactly this, only mandating masks for staff. Employees wearing masks serves to protect the customer; customers who refuse to wear a mask present a danger to employees and guarantees that many casino employees will be infected and act as (potentially asymptomatic) vectors of disease transmission to others for weeks to come.
I cannot stress enough that the charitable gaming industry should be among the absolute last businesses to reopen in the current climate. Every particular detail of the business is an epidemiological nightmare — it is a business of socialization between strangers, of mixed groups sharing air for long hours, and handfuls of chips and markers being passed endlessly between a few players and dealers. At the end of the day, none of this is essential.
Any move to reopen New Hampshire’s casinos now is simply gambling with our citizens’ health.