As COVID-19 spread across Colorado, Gov. Jared Polis ordered casinos and other businesses to close. The closures facilitated social distancing by making these crowded public spaces unavailable. However, Colorado’s casinos have been given the green light to reopen, and casinos have new guidelines in place to mitigate the risk of a COVID-19 outbreak.
We reached out to several medical professionals to get their input on Colorado’s casino reopening policies, what casino-goers should know before going, and what people need to know about COVID-19 that they may not be hearing often enough.
How Effective Are The Colorado Casino Reopening Guidelines?
To reopen safely, Colorado casinos are enforcing new policies, including:
- Operating at 50% capacity.
- Closing every other slot machine.
- Eliminating table games like blackjack, poker, and roulette.
- Testing all employees for COVID-19.
- Checking visitors’ temperatures and health histories at the door.
While these are good pieces of official policy, they need infrastructural support to be effective. “Are they requiring masks?” asks Dr. Christina Johns, PM Pediatrics’ Senior Medical Advisor. “Have they installed hand sanitizer kiosks or hand washing stations? As unglamorous as that may sound, those are the kinds of things that can really keep places open when businesses are starting to reopen during this process.”
Are the existing guidelines enough to keep casino patrons and employees safe? “I think that’s probably the best you can do,” says Dr. Gary Gerlacher, Vice President of Business Development for PM Pediatrics. “The most difficult thing will be opening up table games because things like chips and cards exchange hands and that’s problematic. But a slot machine, you could wipe down the handle and sit at your slot machine and be isolated from other people.”
Black Hawk has hand sanitizing stations and wipes throughout its hotels and casinos. If an asymptomatic person slips through the screening process, other patrons can still kill any virus on casino surfaces–including their hands.
And of course, casinos require masks.
Why Masks Are Vital For Colorado Casino Patrons And Employees
Guests and employees are required to wear masks at Colorado’s casinos. Although masks have become a bizarre culture war battle, the correct side is clear. “All of the emerging data seems to suggest that the mask is a critical impediment to blocking the virus,” says Dr. Eric Weinberg, PM Pediatrics’ Director of Education.
That point has been driven home in Missouri, where two hair stylists worked while they were showing COVID-19 symptoms. They exposed 140 people to the virus, all of whom were contacted.
However, no one got sick. Not a single one of the 140 patrons caught the coronavirus from those hairdressers.
“Think about that,” said Dr. Weinberg of the Missouri hairdressers. “You’re in a hair salon. You’re in close proximity to somebody for a long amount of time. There’s probably conversation going on. So, it’s a really high-risk activity.” And for all the risk, the hairdressers’ and customers’ masks made a massive difference. What could’ve been a disastrous reopening became a lucky break.
Casinos can learn from these Missouri hairdressers. In a business where social distancing was impossible, masks prevented the spread of COVID-19 from two sick employees. It’ll be vital for casinos to enforce their new guidelines strictly. Dr. Gerlacher makes the point to casino owners bluntly. “If you want to get lazy on [enforcement], you’re gonna have outbreaks among your staff or your visitors. And you’re probably gonna have to shut down at some point.”
Enforcing mask-wearing policies is a small price to pay to stave off another three months of financial ruin.
How Can Casino Patrons And Employees Keep Themselves Safe?
The best casinos can do is minimize infection risk. Even routine testing cannot eliminate risk altogether. “No test is perfect,” Dr. Johns says. “So I think it comes down to, again, the amount of risk tolerance that we all have and how much an organization has.”
First and foremost, patrons must decide whether they should go to casinos at all. That decision will depend on their personal health. “If you’re a person who has fragile health status, it’s probably not a wise thing to go,” says Dr. Gerlacher. Combined with appropriate precautions, going to a casino could be a low-risk activity for younger, healthier patrons. However, most casino patrons are 50 or older, making casinos potentially dangerous for their most loyal–and vulnerable–patrons.
As for employees, there are two things that will help them immensely. “Wear a mask all the time,” says Dr. Weinberg. “Not just around visitors, but around staff. Wash your hands religiously. Hand sanitizer after every single encounter.” Staff members will be exposed to dozens of patrons during their shifts, and that exposure will increase if casinos remain open. Employees need to keep themselves from spreading COVID-19 to patrons and from spreading it to each other.
However, casino patrons and employees both share responsibility for following these guidelines. “It all kind of depends on everybody being a good steward of their community,” says Dr. Johns. “If you’re sick, you need to stay home. And answer honestly about your symptoms…Again, it is about doing all of these different kinds of things all at the same time.”
Less-Frequently Discussed COVID-19 Tidbits
Casinos and their patrons are far from the only people navigating the pandemic’s challenges. COVID-19 has forced everyone to change the way they live and find new ways to protect themselves and their loved ones. We asked the doctors for tidbits about COVID-19 that have gotten lost in the fights over masks and social distancing.
It’s Not Just A ‘Bad Flu’
A common misconception about COVID-19 is that it’s just another flu. However, that could not be less true. “It is five to ten times more deadly than flu is,” Dr. Weinberg says. “[Young people] need to understand there’s a difference between low-risk and no risk. Yes, [the risk is] much higher if you’re older. But if you’re a young adult, you can still end up in the hospital or worse because of COVID-19.”
It’s easy to be 23 and not worry about dying from a new disease. However, health authorities are still learning about this new virus and seeking effective treatments. Young patients thinking they’re safe are in for a rude awakening when they hear stories from other young people who’ve had it.
COVID-19 Can Cause Damage That Lasts Months
There’s more to COVID-19 than its lethality. “For everybody who dies,” says Dr. Gerlacher, “there’s three to five people who are critically ill and survive. But they’re sick as dogs for a long time with a long rehab road ahead of them. And a lot of those people are a lot younger.”
Recovery is about more than living or dying. It’s also about learning to walk after being on a ventilator for two weeks. After that, the long road to recovery begins. “It’s gonna take months to a year to recover and get back to their normal selves,” says Dr. Gerlacher.
All those challenges add up to a massive life disruption beyond the illness itself. The virus may not kill younger patients as frequently, but they could feel the aftershocks for months afterwards. “It’s not just the deaths,” Dr. Gerlacher says. “It’s the people it beats the hell out of.”
You Risk Other People, Too
While you may be a young whippersnapper with the lowest risk of being killed by COVID-19, the people you live with may not be so lucky. “People do need to remember that when they are out, the exposure risk is not just about themselves,” says Dr. Johns. “But it is also about potentially bringing home that exposure to anybody high-risk in their household. So, it’s not just about them. It’s about everybody else.”
If you’re taking care of older parents or grandparents, then it’s especially important to follow proper health guidelines. The same is true if you’re roommates with someone who’s young but has a condition that makes them more vulnerable to COVID-19. When Dr. Johns said to be a good steward in the community, she meant it.
Colorado Casinos’ Future Outlook
Colorado’s casinos have added a number of safety measures to keep employees and guests safe, including hand sanitizing stations, strict mask policies, and new layouts that facilitate social distancing.
But it’s not enough. Casino patrons and employees must pull their own weight, too. Dr. Weinberg sums that responsibility up with a study of hospital workers who contracted COVID-19. “The hospital workers that would get sick would be in contact with [COVID-19] in their community, not necessarily in the hospital. So, it was their community behavior and the amount of people in the community that were sick that would infect them, and not necessarily taking care of patients in the hospital.”
Those healthcare workers avoided COVID-19 in their workplaces but caught it when they were off work. That means social distancing and mask wearing must continue outside the casino. Wear the mask, wash the hands, and maintain social distancing.
If casinos are going to pull off successful reopenings, they’ll have to depend on their patrons and employees just as much as their patrons and employees depend on them. It’ll take a village to do this safely. Hopefully, the village comes together against a common enemy instead of succumbing to it.
Editor’s note: Dr. Gary Gerlacher is author Chris Gerlacher’s father. Their relation did not influence Dr. Gerlacher’s responses in any way.