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For Mohegan Sun, poker's reinstatement is in the cards

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Mohegan — Come 2021, live poker could be back on the table(s) at Mohegan Sun.

By New Year’s Day or shortly thereafter, Mohegan Sun expects to start dealing poker hands for the first time since mid-March, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the southeastern Connecticut casinos to shut down. When they reopened on a limited basis in June, poker, in which as many as 10 players huddle near a dealer, was considered too risky.

Now, Mohegan Sun believes it can make it safe.

“We’re waiting for the shields to come in,” Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, said of plexiglass partitions that will separate Mohegan Sun poker players — no more than seven of them per table — from one another and from the dealer. “If the (Mohegan) health department deems it safe, our goal is to open up."

"It’s 50-50 we’ll have it going by Dec. 29 (the original target date), but if not, by the first or second week of January,” he said.

That would give Mohegan Sun the drop on its nearby rival, Foxwoods Resort Casino, which has long prided itself on running the biggest poker room on the East Coast. Foxwoods management recently reached a severance settlement with unionized table-games dealers it had temporarily laid off amid the pandemic, including its poker dealers.

Jason Guyot, Foxwoods’ interim chief executive officer, said Thursday his casino was “reviewing” the reinstatement of poker. Prior to the pandemic, he said, Foxwoods was operating 75 to 80 poker tables, roughly twice as many as Mohegan Sun.

“It’s just a matter of time and when we’re comfortable doing it,” Guyot said. “When things start to settle, we’re definitely going to reopen (poker).”

Mohegan Sun, which would be the first casino in New England to reinstate poker, is taking its lead from Mohegan Sun Pocono, its sister casino near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., which successfully reopened its poker room in October. Pennsylvania casinos are now closed for a second time amid the pandemic, as are those in Rhode Island.

The Mohegan Sun poker room, a smoke-free area, is well ventilated and “very safe from an air-quality perspective,” according to Hamilton. Plexiglass partitions will be placed on both sides of each player and between each player and the dealer.

“Basically, you’re in your own box,” Hamilton said.

Having kept to a standard of 25% of capacity since it reopened, Mohegan Sun will operate only 10 poker tables at first, which will facilitate the rehiring of about 40 dealers. The casino employed 103 poker dealers before the shutdown.

“It’s not a big moneymaker, but based on the volumes we’re seeing, it’s important to make some money,” Hamilton said of poker. “Most important is that it will get some of our team members back to work. If we can get 40 people back to their normal jobs, that’s worth it.”

A Mohegan Sun financial report shows poker generated $834,000 in net revenue for the casino during the three months that ended March 31, which included the first two weeks of the pandemic-induced shutdown. The sum reflected a 3.5% decline over the same period in 2019.

Revenue from Mohegan Sun’s slot machines, which generate most of its gaming revenue, fell by 38% in November.

In what Local 2121 of the United Auto Workers has called a $5.1 million deal, Foxwoods has agreed to pay severance to 376 union members who had been temporarily laid off, including 159 poker dealers. The severance will be equal to two weeks’ pay for every year of service up to 26 weeks plus the continuation of health benefits for the same amount of time, the union said on its website. All members paid severance will retain their recall rights until Dec. 31, 2021.

The union had filed a grievance after members furloughed in March were converted to layoff status on June 1, costing them severance and health coverage.

“We are very happy to have reached an agreement that honors the collective bargaining agreement,” Guyot, the Foxwoods CEO, said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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