As COVID-19 Cases Rise, Colorado Casinos are Area of Concern for Health Officials

Most Colorado casinos have been open for about a month, following state-mandated closure orders issued in March in response to the pandemic. Since then, nationwide cases of COVID-19 have spiked considerably, including in Colorado. This has led health officials to express concerns about a COVID-19 outbreak in Teller County. While that doesn’t mean casinos have to immediately shut down, local officials will need to take some steps in order to keep the doors open at casinos in Cripple Creek.

That comes from the governor’s office and health department. Both groups provided Colorado Sharp with details on how the companies could keep running and what they would have to do to make that happen. It’s mainly a question of safety. From May 31 to July 6, new cases came in at 200 or fewer per day across the state. That doubled on July 7, with 409 cases reported. The numbers kept rising each day, hitting a peak of 666 on July 10. Colorado went from averaging less than 1,300 new cases each week to 2,725.

Speaking to Colorado Sharp and other media on a press call last week, state epidemiologist Rachel Herlihy said the biggest issue is the average age of victims. From April through June, the average age was in the late 40s and older. As of July 10, the average was down to 33 years old. 

“What we believe is occurring is that there is less social distancing in the state at this point,” Herlihy said. “Coloradans’ behavior has changed.” 

In some counties, that’s due to local decisions. In Douglas County, for example, commissioners voted to withdraw from the regional health department because they refused to wear face masks. Other counties refuse to follow state guidelines. That’s not the case in Teller and Gilpin counties. Because of the strict requirements implemented in casinos, some even tougher than the overall state, numbers remain significantly lower. 

COVID Causes Problems in Teller County

Just because the overall numbers in Teller and Gilpin are lower, that doesn’t mean casinos are guaranteed to stay open. Teller specifically has some issues that concern state health officials, in terms of active COVID-19 cases. As we mentioned previously, counties had to agree to several requirements to reopen. One of those involved either keeping the number of new cases low or on a downward trajectory. This is where Teller struggled a bit over the last two weeks. As of June 30, the county reported 34 cases. By July 12, that number climbed to 61. It’s not just that Teller almost doubled their four-month total in two weeks. By climbing over 50 cases, the county also is no longer a “low risk” area. Now they’re on the clock. 

When counties applied to reopen casinos, they were placed in three categories: low, medium and high risk. To be low risk, a county could only have 25 or fewer new cases within a two week period. Casinos in these areas could have guests up to 50 percent of the posted occupancy code. That includes a maximum of 175 within any enclosed space. To be labeled in the medium group, a county can only have between 26 to 50 cases in the two week span. They, in turn,  can have up to 100 guests in an enclosed space. Any counties above 50 cases are considered high risk. If they’re allowed to open, they can only have 50 people inside the building at one time. 

What’s Next For Teller Casinos? 

Teller’s problem is that it jumped from low risk to the high risk category. State health officials directed us to their website, which spells out the next steps in order for casinos to remain open. We mentioned that high risk areas have to limit the total number of people in the building to 50, but that doesn’t automatically happen in this case. Teller or any other county has a two week grace period to bring the virus cases back down to low levels. If they do, the casinos remain open, allowing up to 175 guests inside. If they can’t bring the numbers back down, then things change. 

“[If counties] cannot restore to ‘low’ levels after two weeks, then the variance capacity limit automatically reduces to a maximum of 50 people indoors,” Colorado Health Department officials say in a statement on the website. 

Even that 50 people limit is temporary, health officials said. 

“If after two weeks at the new level, virus transmission continues to increase, then the variance is no longer granted,” the health department’s statement reads. 

Over the last two weeks, virus cases increased by 27 in Teller. If the county sees an increase of 28 or 29 by the end of July, the health department will force all casinos in Teller to shut down. Health officials also told Colorado Sharp that if a county’s variance gets pulled, there’s no timetable for when casinos could reopen a second time. Teller officials meanwhile did not respond to Colorado Sharp’s questions by publication time. 

What About The State’s Other Casinos?

While Teller County struggles with a recent spike, Gilpin County doesn’t have that problem. In fact, casinos in Black Hawk and Central City have a strong chance of remaining open. Remember when we mentioned the state’s reopening requirements? Gilpin County reported 8 total cases as of July 12, with just three since June 30. For reference, only 10 other counties have lower numbers than Gilpin across the state. Local officials say part of the credit goes to the casinos, as each one installed new technology and different methods to keep people socially distant.

Monarch, Century and Bronco Billy’s all removed more than 200 slot machines, in order to keep people apart. Monarch is also using microshield technology. First, surfaces get hit with an electrostatic burst, then they get covered with a disinfectant. Finally, a biostatic coating goes on. The idea is not just to clean for the day, but to protect against bacteria for months. Based on multiple reports, the system has a record of killing 99 percent of bacteria for multiple months.

As for the tribal casinos, they remain closed. La Plata County, which surrounds the Sky Ute Casino, reported 123 COVID-19 cases by July 2. That number climbed to 136 as of July 12. Montezuma County, which surrounds the Mountain Ute Casino, reported 80 cases as of July 12. That’s up 10 from June numbers. Both tribes confirmed through spokespersons that their casinos would remain closed for the foreseeable future.

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.