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Casino executives welcome decline in COVID-19 cases

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Few retail executives are happier than the honchos at Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun about this week’s decline in COVID-19 cases, a development that can be expected to lead to an uptick in their business.

Since the casinos reopened June 1, 2020, after closing for 11 weeks at the start of the pandemic — the only shutdowns in their history — the gaming resorts’ fortunes have fluctuated with the ebb and flow of the coronavirus. The most recent surge in cases associated with the omicron variant is a prime example.

“Overall, there are a lot of external factors in the market right now,” Jason Guyot, Foxwoods’ president and chief executive officer, said Tuesday. “Traditionally, this is a softer month (for business), coming right after the holidays. But aside from that, omicron has had an impact on our visitation. It’s affected our revenues.”

So, with COVID-19 positivity rates falling in Connecticut and in the Northeast generally, casino traffic should be picking up, Guyot said.

Connecticut's one-day positivity rate was 16.55% Wednesday, according to data released by Gov. Ned Lamont's office. That's down from 18.44% on Tuesday and rates higher than 20% in recent weeks. An additional 4,745 positive tests were reported as of Wednesday, bringing the state's overall total of confirmed and probable cases to 662,425 since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations also were down; 1,805 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, a decrease of 14 from the day before. New London County had 112 patients hospitalized Wednesday, down by one from the day before.

Jeff Hamilton, Mohegan Sun’s president and general manager, said visitation was down at his casino the first two weekends in January. He did not interpret the sluggishness as a sign of flagging consumer confidence but rather a reflection of the disease’s rampant spread.

“A lot of people in the Northeast, or their families were sick,” he said.

Early in the month, the Connecticut Marine Trades Association announced it was canceling its 2022 Hartford Boat Show at Mohegan Sun in response to “increasing public health COVID concerns.” The four-day event, scheduled to run from Thursday through Sunday, is among the largest annual bookings in the casino’s Earth Expo & Convention Center. Organizers promised the show would return in 2023.

Also called off due to concerns about COVID-19 was a Beach Boys concert scheduled for New Year’s Eve in Mohegan Sun Arena.

Hamilton said the older demographic attracted by the Beach Boys was a factor in the concert's postponement "out of an abundance of caution." The early cancellation of the boat show, he said, had to do with the advance planning and logistics involved in staging an event of that magnitude. Ticket sales were not a concern, he said.

Performances of the “Dancing with the Stars” tour went off as scheduled in the arena last weekend, and the Sun Wine & Food Fest is scheduled for Jan. 27-30 in the convention center. Those who attend the fest will be asked to show their COVID-19 vaccination record or proof that they’ve recently tested negative for the coronavirus.

“Our goal is to keep our events going,” Hamilton said. “We hear from our guests that they want us to continue. People want to go out and they’re OK with a certain level of risk. A lot of people have had COVID.”

Both casinos made minor changes in their COVID-19 protocols as cases related to the omicron variant soared.

A week ago Monday, Foxwoods began requiring that masks be worn by all those attending events in the Premier Theater, the Great Cedar Showroom and other entertainment venues. Patrons who are fully vaccinated — meaning they've had two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine — need not wear masks elsewhere on the property, though the casino does not require proof of vaccination. Unvaccinated patrons are required to wear masks.

Since August 2021, Foxwoods employees have been required to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status.

Mohegan Sun recently imposed a mask mandate for all employees, regardless of vaccination status, and requires unvaccinated patrons to wear masks while requiring no proof of vaccination.

“Just walking around, my sense is where about 20% (of patrons) were wearing masks in the summer, it’s now well over 50%,” Hamilton said. “Even a lot of the vaccinated are wearing masks.”

Both Guyot and Hamilton reported that 75% of their employees are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, meaning they’ve received either two doses of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines or one of the J&J vaccine. Neither executive could say how many of employees have gotten a booster shot.

Hamilton said Mohegan Sun was prepared to require that all employees be vaccinated or tested weekly, as the Biden administration intended to mandate of private companies with more than 100 employees. The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the mandate, however, making the move unnecessary.

COVID-19’s ravages are still evident in the number of casino jobs going begging. Guyot said Foxwoods has more than 300 openings, as it did last summer, and continues to offer sign-on bonuses and payments to current employees who refer candidates. Foxwoods still is negotiating a new contract with the union representing table-games dealers, Local 2121 of the United Auto Workers. The casino’s last contract with the union expired Dec. 31, 2019.

The casinos have no plan to reinstate indoor smoking in the foreseeable future, the executives said. Mohegan Sun banned indoor smoking after the pandemic-induced shutdown in March 2020. Foxwoods, after allowing smoking in limited areas indoors after the shutdown, banned it indoors in September 2021.

Neither the Mashantucket Pequot Tribe, which owns Foxwoods, nor the Mohegan Tribe, which owns Mohegan Sun, has discussed permanently banning smoking in its respective casino, according to Guyot and Hamilton.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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