COVID-19 Spike Puts Cripple Creek Casinos at Risk of Closure

In order for Cripple Creek casinos to stay open, Teller County has to get its COVID-19 problem under control. That’s a point everyone from casino operators to county commissioners want to get across, as the numbers keep increasing. On July 3, the county reported 41 total cases of the virus. In the month since then, the cases more than doubled, going to 89 on July 24 and 121 by Aug. 6. This is an issue because of the specific rules laid out when Teller got permission to reopen casinos. If the cases keep climbing, casinos will be forced to scale back the number of people allowed inside. If the spread continues after that, at a certain point, the health department has the power to order the businesses to shut down. 

In Colorado, the health department ranks counties on a scale as low, medium or high risk for COVID-19 infection. This is based on the number of cases over the previous two week period. For the week ending Aug. 8, for example, they look at data from July 19 to Aug. 2. During that time, if a county had 25 or fewer new cases for every 100,000 people, it’s considered low risk. Counties with this tag can let more people in the casinos, up to 50 percent of the maximum occupancy code or 175 gamers, whichever is lower. Right now, Teller falls in the second category, the medium designation. That covers any county with 26 to 50 new cases within a two week period, a number Teller hit nearly every week over the last 30 days. This group can only have up to 100 people in a confined indoor space. 

Where Did The Cases Come From?  

The third designation is the one Teller officials want to avoid. If you’re labeled high risk, that means more than 50 new cases hit over a two week period. State health officials say in the approval documents that it’s possible to keep businesses open, but there would be “severe restrictions” in place. It’s unclear what most of those restrictions would be, with one exception. It means less than 100 people would be allowed in the casino at one time. To be clear, that includes all of the employees, so you’d be looking at 50 or less actual gamers in the building if that happened. 

What’s frustrating for Teller officials is that part of this spike came from one incident, an event local and state officials asked the organizers to reconsider. From June 29 to July 3, Charis Bible College in Woodland Park held its annual Summer Family Bible Conference. The event was held in person, despite a cease-and-desist letter from Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser on July 2. In a post on the ministry’s Facebook page, founder Andrew Wommack said the state requested that they limit attendance to 175 people. He refused, allowing 1,000 people to come to the event. 

“We have the constitutional right to freely exercise our faith and to peaceably assemble together,” Wommack said in a statement on the page.

Two weeks after the conference, 15 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Fifteen of the conference attendees also tested positive within the next two weeks, with four others following by the end of the month. Out of the 80 new cases since July 3 in Teller, at least 34 could be traced back to Charis. Take away those and Teller falls back into the low risk category. 

Teller Takes Steps to Keep Doors Open

A spike on its own doesn’t create problems for counties. Red flags go up when the number of cases cross one of those boundaries. That means 26 or 51 cases in a two week period. Since Teller opened up as a “medium risk” county, as long as the spike doesn’t hit 51 cases over a two week period. So far, that hasn’t happened, but it’s come close. In the last four weeks, the county hit numbers of 34 and 41. Under the current rules, casinos make their own decisions when it comes to safety measures and it seems to be working. Out of the 80 new cases reported since July 3, none of them came from a casino guest or employee. 

As for the rest of the county, Teller officials increased their contact tracing in July to help. During the last two meetings, county commission members said they’ve brought on multiple volunteers. They also plan to hire some temporary employees to speed up testing and tracing. In July, they purchased additional test kits, to further speed up the process. Overall, the county’s message is “Stay Safe, Stay Open,” encouraging people to follow the rules to avoid any more spikes.

So far, Teller is the only casino county dealing with this issue. Gilpin remains at 16 total cases since March, one of the lowest numbers in the state. The tribal casinos remain closed, as both La Plata and Montezuma counties continue to struggle. La Plata was at 201 cases as of Aug. 6, with Montezuma at 108.

Teller is on The Clock

State officials meanwhile said they’ll offer Teller any help necessary to prevent another spike.  Officials at Colorado’s Joint Information Center said they sent a letter to the county last week. 

“We will work together with Teller County to find the best solution for their community that protects public health,” JIC officials said in a statement to Colorado Sharp. “We are working with counties that received variances and are experiencing increased cases and positivity rates.” 

Even if Teller does hit the 51 case mark, they have a built-in grace period. State officials said Teller would have two weeks to either show a decline in cases or present a plan to quickly do so. If either of those happens, things go on as normal. If not, then the state health department can label the county as high risk and shut down casinos.

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.