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A clean sweep: Mohegan Sun offers glimpse of new safety features

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Mohegan — Mohegan Sun’s handlers probably would be glad to hear the place felt sterile Thursday.

For nine weeks, the casino hadn’t seen a gambler, a shopper, a diner or a reveler of any kind, not since the Mohegan Tribe agreed to close it amid the coronavirus outbreak. At some point, the tribe began cleaning it like it had never been cleaned. And they’re not going to stop cleaning it.

“We’re going to do an extraordinary amount of cleaning,” said Jeff Hamilton, the casino’s president and general manager, who led reporters on a tour of the casino's new safety features.

The tribe expects to reopen Mohegan Sun on June 1, and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe expects to open Foxwoods Resort Casino the same day. Gov. Ned Lamont thinks they're jumping the gun.

“Hopefully, the governor will take a closer look at what they’ve done here,” U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, said after the Mohegan Sun tour. “This is a sound plan, and effort.”

Referring to the southeastern Connecticut jobless numbers that came out Thursday, he added, “You don’t have to be a Ph.D. in economics to know this place (being closed) has a lot to do with it.”

Lamont, answering questions at his daily news briefing on the coronavirus, which was held in Hebron and was recorded, indicated the casinos’ reopening is still up for discussion.

“I’m going to work collegially, I hope, with the tribes,” he said. “They want to do everything they can to keep their people safe, keep their customers safe, keep the broader community safe because there are hundreds of workers going back and forth. It’s a part of the state that’s been less affected by COVID over the last two months and I want to keep it that way.”

Asked what leverage he has, given the tribes are sovereign nations, Lamont said he’d talked to lawyers about liquor licenses and the effect of the executive orders he’s issued regarding bars, restaurants and hotels, all of which the casinos have in abundance.

He said it’s “premature” to talk about pulling a liquor license.

“I can’t think of anything worse if I was operating one of these casinos (than) to open too early and one of two things happened — people don’t show up because they know it’s not safe or they show up and there’s an infection, both of which would be terrible business decisions ... for those casinos,” he said.

As of Thursday, the state said it has seen 39,208 cases of COVID-19, up 191 from the day before and 816 people hospitalized with the disease, down 71 from the previous day. The state saw an additional 53 associated deaths, bringing the total to 3,582. The state says 196,447 tests have been reported, a hike of 5,729 from the day before.

New London County has seen a total of 903 cases; 22 people were hospitalized with the disease and 73 people have died in connection with it.

During the Mohegan Sun tour, James Gessner, the Mohegan chairman, said he hadn’t heard from Lamont, who said Wednesday he would talk to the tribes but apparently hadn’t since last Friday.

“We’ve shared our plan with the governor,” Gessner said. “Sometimes I wonder, ‘Did he even read the plan?’ We’ve reached out multiple times. Our lines of communication are open.”

Hand sanitizers, Plexiglass shields and new signs were all over Mohegan Sun, and a newly installed air handler pumped in atmosphere from the outside at the rate of 3 million cubic feet per minute, filtering it through disinfecting ultraviolet light.

“We’re not aware of any other property in the Northeast that has this,” Hamilton said.

He demonstrated a new thermal checkpoint, one of which will be in place at each of the casino’s six entrances. People passed through it without hardly knowing. Had it detected a temperature above 100.2 degrees, it would have sounded an alarm and flashed red on a security employee’s computer screen.

“If you’re sick or you’re at high risk (for the coronavirus), you shouldn’t come,” Hamilton said.

In the first phase of the casino’s opening, the Earth Hotel, Mohegan Sun Arena, the Wolf Den, the poker room and the Sunburst Buffet will stay closed. Restaurants will only provide takeout service. Employees and patrons will be required to wear face masks at all times.

With 6 million square feet of space, the casino has the room to keep people distanced from one another, except on the gaming floor, where it’ll be a challenge. Seating at the banks of slot machines and at gaming tables has been halved. If the remaining seats reach 90% occupancy, no more players will be allowed until the rate drops back to 70%, Hamilton said.

Signs on all the elevators announce that occupancy is limited to four people, one in each corner. In the bathrooms, every other sink, stall and urinal has been disabled.

“We thought about every single detail,” he said. “We’re telling guests to wipe the screens, the buttons, to sanitize your hands. You know it’s clean if you clean it yourself. We’ll take care of the chairs, the railings, the chips, the money. We’ll change the cards more frequently.”

In deciding how many patrons to admit and how to move from phase to phase in the reopening, Michael Silberling, chief operating officer of Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, Mohegan Sun’s corporate parent, said the casino will monitor “external” factors such as the region’s COVID-19 infection rate, hospitalizations and the number of COVID-19 tests being performed.

“I feel safer here than I would in a grocery store and people go into grocery stores every day,” said Dr. Ramindra Walia, the tribe’s medical director.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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