Illinois casinos angling to clean up now that coronavirus closing is over

Plexiglass partitions are set up to separate dealers from players at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Imagine Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra sitting down for a hand of blackjack, with their trademark banter muffled by surgical masks — not to mention a plexi-glass partition separating all three.

Pass on the Rat Pack star power, take a hit of hand sanitizer, and you’ve got an idea of what a COVID-19 casino looks like.

Illinois gamblers got their first glimpse of that Wednesday as the state’s 10 casinos reopened after three months of an unprecedented statewide shutdown.

Hundreds of clear partitions separated slot machines, cash counters and card dealers sprawled across the gaming floor of Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, where some bettors were so eager to get back to the action in the age of COVID-19 that they lined up before it opened around 11 a.m.

The state’s most lucrative casino hadn’t taken in a chip since March 16, when Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office shuttered the state’s 10 gambling houses as well as the 36,000 slot machines scattered across more than 7,000 bars, restaurants and other establishments.

But the virus wasn’t scaring off many from returning to the bright lights and high-touch surfaces on Wednesday. Close to a thousand gamblers were on Rivers’ main floor by midday, with around-the-clock cleaning crews sweeping through and hand sanitizing stations set up throughout the building.

That’s almost half the casino’s regular capacity, the attendance cap set under Illinois Gaming Board reopening guidelines to promote social distancing.

Plexiglass partitions are set up to separate dealers from players at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Plexiglass partitions are set up to separate dealers from players at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
Provided by Rivers Casino

“Vacations are kind of out the window this summer with everything going on, so is my ‘staycation,’ ” said McHenry bettor Anna Brenton, who arrived to play the slots shortly after the doors opened. “It’s the first fun thing I’ve probably done outside the house in three months.”

Gaming Board protocol requires workers and gamblers to wear masks. Casinos must provide free personal protective equipment and daily health screenings to employees, post signage reminding gamblers about social distancing and “proper hand washing,” and regularly disinfect all gaming equipment including dice, chips, cards and roulette wheels.

At Rivers’ tables, that means a spritz of hand sanitizer for both worker and wagerer whenever cash or chips change hands. On top of those baseline requirements, Rivers installed the plexiglass dividers, which you won’t find at northwestern Indiana casinos that reopened two weeks ago.

“We’re trying to be a leader in keeping people safe. The last thing we want is to have to close again,” Rivers general manager Corey Wise said.

He expects a socially distant line to form outside the casino this weekend as it bumps up against its 50%-capacity limit.

Social distancing markers are placed around a craps table at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.

Social distancing markers are placed around a craps table at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines.
Provided by Rivers Casino

That’s music to the ears of an industry ground to a halt, and a pandemic-stricken state that’s starved for cash. Gamblers lost about $470 million at Illinois casinos and almost $587 million at other video slots from March through June last year, generating more than a quarter of a billion dollars in state tax revenue — money almost completely lost this year.

And close to 5,000 casino workers across the state are making their way back to work. About 1,200 Rivers employees were back from furlough Wednesday, and the casino expects to eventually get back to its normal staffing level of around 1,400.

While the mid-pandemic reopening had a celebratory air, it certainly wasn’t the kind the state’s Democratic governor might’ve envisioned a year ago when he signed Illinois’ landmark gaming overhaul into law.

A security guard screens guests at Rivers Casino on Wednesday.

A security guard screens guests at Rivers Casino on Wednesday.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The casinos’ unprecedented coronavirus shutdown ended a year to the day after Pritzker’s massive expansion went into effect, introducing sports betting, casino games at racetracks, expanded video gambling outside casinos and six brand new casino licenses that have yet to be doled out.

The crown jewel of that legislation, a long-sought Chicago mega-casino, is still many months or even years from coming to fruition, but it took a major step forward this week as the Democratic governor signed a bill lowering the effective tax rate for that potential future cash cow. An industry consultant last summer ruled the Chicago gambling tax structure too high to lure any potential developer, sending Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s team back to the table in Springfield earlier this spring to win a more palatable tax schedule.

Pritkzer’s signature on Tuesday sealed a win for Lightfoot that had eluded a generation of Chicago mayors, but it’ll still be a long time before a big-city casino opens its doors. A decision on where to break ground has already stirred controversy, not to mention what private company might bid to operate a gambling house that’s expected to generate upwards of $1 billion annually.

Chicago’s cut of the casino revenue is earmarked for underfunded police and firefighter pensions. State money from the city casino and five other new ones already under consideration by the Illinois Gaming Board are designated for construction projects in Pritzker’s $45 billion capital infrastructure plan.

Applications for the five other new casinos are under consideration, with license decisions from Gaming Board expected in October.

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