Gilpin County casinos, including those in Black Hawk and Central City, reopened table games last week for the first time since the pandemic forced casinos to close in mid-March. Now, officials in Teller County, home of Cripple Creek‘s casinos, are seeking a variance from the state to do the same.
Teller County’s Delicate Balance
When Teller County got clearance from the Colorado Department of Public Health to reopen in June, it did so under certain requirements intended to limit the spread of coronavirus. This included keeping table games closed, socially distanced slot machine placement, as well as capacity limits and mandatory mask wearing. In order to stay open, counties had to keep their number of new cases under certain thresholds.
Teller County had initially submitted a request to open table games in June when casinos reopened, but it later revised the request to omit any mention of table games. The revised request was approved by health officials and Cripple Creek casinos were able to reopen on June 15.
The health department ranks counties on a low to high scale for COVID-19 infection based on the newly reported cases. Last month, Teller county remained in the “moderate” risk designation, which applies to any county with 26-50 new cases reported within a two week period. Counties with this designation are limited to no more than 100 people in a confined indoor space. If the number of new cases hit 51 or higher, Teller would be redesignated as “high” risk category and could have been made to close down again.
What’s In The County’s Request?
In a letter to Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) Executive Director Jill Hunsaker Ryan, Teller County commissioners noted the county’s efforts to remain in compliance with the original variance, and touted their efforts by casino operators to control the spread of the virus.
Pursuant to the part of the variance governing the number of cases, the letter notes Teller County has been “trending down in a positive direction for the last month,” pointing to seven new cases in the county in the 14 day period ending Sept. 11. The county says it’s seen 166 total cases since the start of the pandemic, which included 15 hospitalizations and four deaths.
“When you granted the casino variance, you did not approve gaming tables, but specifically stated you would consider them again in three weeks. It has now been three months, and we believe it is the appropriate time to allow table games for casinos in Cripple Creek,” the letter reads in part.
The County Commissioners also note that the request to amend the existing variance has the support of the Teller County Board of Health and the Board of County Commissioners, as well as the local hospital.
Table Games, Alcohol Service Restrictions Included In Amendment Request
Citing the county’s efforts to keep casino properties safe for patrons and employees, as well as its careful monitoring of players’ activity through surveillance and players club cards, Teller County Commissioners have centered their requests around reopening table games and returning to 24/7 alcohol service.
Proposals for reopening table games by the county are as follows:
- Blackjack tables limited to 3 players (one on each end, one in the middle)
- Roulette tables limited to 4 players
- Craps tables limited to 6 players total, 3 on each side.
- Live poker would be limited to 6 players per table (there are no live poker games in Cripple Creek looking to run in town, but this request, the county says, would be to avoid making it in the future).
Some additional rules proposed by the county include no bystanders or groups gathering around the table, requiring dealers to use hand sanitizer at the table, and frequent sanitizing of cards, chips, dice, and the roulette ball.
As for alcohol, Colorado establishments making alcoholic beverages available are currently required to stop serving at 11 p.m. The casino argues that its customer base skewing 30 or older means Cripple Creek isn’t a “typical bar scene” and that it’s fully capable of responsibly serving alcohol to guests 24 hours a day.
Closure Has Already Taken Toll On County’s Finances
Reopening table games in Teller County would give a much-needed boost to the local economy, which has been left reeling by the pandemic-related casino closures. At a meeting of the Colorado Limited Gaming Control Commission in May, Cripple Creek finance director Paul Harris said the city had slashed its budget by 20% just to deal with impacts felt in the second quarter.
Harris said the county’s furloughed casino workers were forced to seek public services, facing the sudden and prolonged loss of income. The city was “turned into a ghost town” during the pandemic’s height.
CDPHE did not immediately respond to a request for comment.