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Proceeding with caution: Casinos hit road to recovery

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Now that the tribes have wiped down, spaced out and otherwise modified their casinos for reopening in the time of coronavirus, the question remains: Will they ever be the same?

Will they ever draw as many visitors, generate as much revenue and command as much attention as they once did?

No one knows, of course, and the answers are a long way off.

Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods Resort Casino will reopen to the public at 8 and 9 a.m., respectively, Monday for the first time since voluntarily closing the night of March 17. They’re opening cautiously, their tribal owners have said, and they’ll be scanning guests at the entrances to detect higher-than-normal temperatures that could signal infection.

More than half the positions on their gaming floors — seats at the slot machines and at table games like blackjack, craps and roulette — have been removed. Only a few casino restaurants will be open, providing takeout service that can be consumed outside, which is where Mohegan Sun patrons will have to go to smoke. Foxwoods has designated indoor smoking areas away from gaming floors. The theaters, buffets and poker rooms will stay closed.

To Gov. Ned Lamont’s dismay, alcohol will be served.

The governor, who for weeks had called for the sovereign tribes to push back their reopenings, seemed resigned Friday to what had become inevitable: Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, among the region's economic engines, had to get going. So, during the same news briefing at which he announced new guidelines for houses of worship, he announced the casinos would open.

He’d worried that it was too soon, noting that no other casino in the Northeast had yet reopened.

“It’s not about beating anyone,” said Rodney Butler, the Mashantucket chairman. “We’re not opening up to get ahead of anyone. Places like Boston and Springfield shouldn’t open yet. They’re in urban areas. Queens and Yonkers (N.Y.) are different environments, too, where it wouldn’t make sense, but the Catskills could open.” 

By Friday, the American Gaming Association’s online COVID-19 Casino Tracker showed 227 of the country’s 989 casinos — tribal as well as commercial — had reopened. None of the open ones were in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, while one was in New York state: the Cayuga Nation’s Lakeside Entertainment slots parlor in Union Springs, about 185 miles west of Albany. The Rhode Island Lottery announced Friday that the Twin River casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton will begin a by-invitation-only reopening on June 8. No date for a full reopening was given.

Patrons have flocked to reopened casinos in some other jurisdictions, forming long lines outside tribal properties this month in Arizona, California and Oklahoma, according to CDC Gaming Reports, a Las Vegas-based publisher of gaming news.

In Mississippi, where casinos opened for the Memorial Day weekend, gaming revenues were up by $5 million compared to the same three-day period the previous year.

In a survey, The Day is asking respondents whether they would visit Foxwoods or Mohegan Sun on opening day Monday. As of 6:45 p.m. Saturday, 20% said "Absolutely, I can’t wait for the casinos to open," while 71% said "Absolutely not. I don’t think it will be safe enough"; 9% said they would wait a week or more before deciding.

Dealing with the economic impacts

It could be quite some time before southeastern Connecticut’s casinos approach the numbers they typically generated before shutting down.

Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun posted year-over-year declines of 65% and 62%, respectively, in slot-machine revenue in March, albeit a month in which they operated for less than three weeks. Mohegan Gaming & Entertainment, the corporate entity that owns and operates Mohegan Sun as well as the Mohegan Tribe's other gaming enterprises, promptly furloughed about 98% of its North American workforce and deferred a $19.7 million interest payment on a loan.

MGE made the deferred payment within a 30-day grace period, and has sought to secure other financing, Bloomberg reported earlier this month.

Mario Kontomerkos, MGE’s chief executive officer, said the interest-payment deferral bought time “to gather as much information as we could about what was happening here and around the globe” amid the pandemic. He said the approval process for an MGE casino project in Greece “continues in our favor” and that Project Inspire, MGE’s integrated resort development in South Korea, is progressing after a temporary shutdown.

MGE has delayed the filing of its quarterly report for the period ending March 31 “due to circumstances related to COVID-19,” according to a post on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission website. MGE said it expects to file the report by June 29, some 45 days later than expected.

About half of Mohegan Sun’s workforce of more than 5,000 people will return to work during the first phase of the casino’s reopening, according to Jeff Hamilton, the casino’s president and general manager, who said the casino intends to keep paying the health benefits of the employees who remain furloughed.

“We’ll open Phase Two when it’s safe,” he said.

Foxwoods will gradually bring back 1,500 to 1,700 furloughed employees in the first phase of its reopening, about a third of the casino’s pre-shutdown workforce, according to Jason Guyot, its interim chief executive officer and senior vice president of resort operations. Those who are not being asked to return in the first phase are losing their health benefits, a circumstance the union representing Foxwoods' table-games dealers has vowed to contest.

In a post on the website of Local 2121 of the United Auto Workers, union leadership said it intends “to grieve, arbitrate, file unfair labor practice charges, and take all other appropriate actions” to preserve laid-off workers' health benefits.

The union said management intends to bring back fewer than 500 of the union’s 1,156 members in the first phase of the reopening.

"We want to get back to work, but so much is unknown," Karina Whitaker, a Local 2121 member, said on a union blog. Many dealers with pre-existing conditions are fearful, as are those in their 60s, a vulnerable population, she said.

One who wasn't worried is Wayne Theiss, Foxwoods' vice president of table games, who dealt blackjack Thursday from behind a Plexiglass partition that separated him from reporters occupying three distanced seats at a gaming table built to accommodate six.

"Everything here is for the safety of customers and the team members," Theiss said. "It's whatever makes you feel comfortable."

Recruited in Atlantic City, Theiss has worked at Foxwoods since the day it opened in 1992.

"I like working for a family instead of a corporation," he said. "When you work for a family, you don't leave."

Not even in the time of coronavirus.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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