Colorado Casinos Start Reopening Today, But Remain Closed in Two Counties

Cripple Creek casinos are officially open, and Black Hawk is set to follow suit on June 17, but Colorado doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all plan to reopen casinos. Instead, state officials say approval comes on a case by case basis. Casinos, along with all other non-essential businesses in Colorado, shut down in March due to COVID-19. The issue now is that some counties have the virus under control and others don’t. As a result, casinos in Teller and Gilpin County are opening up this week. However the tribal-owned casinos in Montezuma and La Plata still have some hurdles to clear. 

“Counties can address casinos reopening through the variance process,” said a spokeswoman from the Colorado Joint Information Center. “We continue to work with counties to figure out this plan. This is not a statewide activity, so we expect the nexus of action to be at the county level.” 

Since the order only affects four counties, there’s no need for a statewide declaration. Instead, counties have to submit variance requests to the Colorado Department of Public Health. As we reported last week, Gilpin and Teller’s requests have been approved. These documents explain how counties will avoid another outbreak of COVID-19, what restrictions they’ll place on casinos and how many people will be allowed inside the buildings. You can look at Las Vegas for an example of how this works. And while it’s not a generic process, counties must check off different requirements in order to move forward. 

What Are The Steps to Reopen? 

When counties submit a variance request, it goes to the Colorado Department of Public Health. Before even getting into the details of their plan, the document has to answer a few questions. First, it has to prove the county has a low number of COVID-19 cases or that the caseload is on a downward trajectory. That wasn’t a problem for Gilpin County, which only had 5 cases as of June 5. Teller had slightly more at 34, but the challenge will be for La Plata and Montezuma, which have 82 and 50, respectively. 

Beyond the data, the plan must be approved by the local health department, as well as all hospitals in the county and a majority of the county commission. Once health officials check off those boxes, they see if the proposed plan would meet their guidelines. 

“We don’t reject variances,” said Colorado Public Health Department spokesman Ian Kahn. “When we return them with feedback, counties have the opportunity to modify their requests or wait until their case trends meet our requirements for opening things up further.” 

Kahn pointed to the fact Teller County’s original variance request got approved in May, with the exception that bars and casinos couldn’t reopen. That was on May 22, following Gov. Polis’ previous orders blocking both from being considered. On May 26, however, the governor changed course, giving the green light to consider casino variances. To get approved, counties now have to prove their case. Both Teller and Gilpin’s subsequent requests got approved within two weeks. 

Ranking From Low To High

Based on the plan and current virus data, health department officials will then rank the request as low, medium or high. This depends on how the virus spread over the last two weeks. For example, let’s look at Gilpin County. Since it had only five cases with no new incidents since mid-May, it landed in the low category. To reach this designation, you need 25 or fewer new cases per 100,000 people in the last two weeks. Counties in the low designation can have operations with up to 50 percent of the posted occupancy code, with people spaced six feet apart. There is a maximum limit, however. You can’t allow more than 175 people in the building at one time. 

For applications to get the medium designation, you need to have 50 new cases or fewer for every 100,000 people in the past two weeks. The guidelines are similar to the low group, with one change. You can only have a maximum of 100 people in a “confined indoor space” at any given time. 

Finally, there’s the high category. This is for any county that’s had 50 or more new cases for every 100,000 people in the last two weeks. Yes, it’s still possible an application like this could be approved, but severe restrictions would be put in place. There could be no more than 50 people total inside at any given time. 

A Few More Questions To Answer

Once the county gets ranked, there’s one final line of questioning. A committee of scientists, lawyers and policymakers will decide if it’s safe to reopen the county’s casinos. Kahn directed us to the health department’s website for specifics about the process. The application review says “the approvals will be based on numerous factors, including the risk of the activity and the rigor of the prevention plan.” 

Now that means the committee considers exposure risk. How many people are involved? Where will the table games be located? Will there be table games? The group will examine the seating arrangement, to make sure everyone is six feet apart. Also, committees will consider infection prevention. Can people wash their hands before and after the game? Will face masks be required? What about the room’s ventilation? 

Once all of these questions have been answered, the committee puts the data together and makes a decision. Between one week to 10 days later, the county will get an answer. If it’s not the one they want, counties can develop a different prevention plan and resubmit. 

About the Author

Brian Carlton

Brian Carlton is an award-winning journalist who has covered casinos, the gaming and finance industries for more than a decade. His work has been published by the BBC and a variety of newspapers across the U.S.