BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts casinos, built with the intention of staying open 24 hours a day and 365 days a year, are preparing to close again. And again … and again, and again.
Gov. Charlie Baker this week ordered that entertainment venues — including casinos, live racetracks and simulcast betting centers — must close by 9:30 p.m. each night, effective Friday. That means Plainridge Park Casino, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor, which reopened from a four-month shutdown in mid-July under capacity restrictions and COVID-19-specific safety guidelines, will have to close the doors and turn out the lights every night.
“Although when they were built it was intended that they would never close down, they have each gone through a close-down period already so there are some experiences with that,” Loretta Lillios, interim director of the commission’s Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, said Thursday, referring to the mid-March closure that most agreed went smoothly.
Baker this week imposed new restrictions on restaurants and entertainment venues, warning that too many people in Massachusetts have let down their guard when it comes to protecting against the coronavirus and that the state must take steps now to slow the spread of the virus or else hospitals will be overrun with COVID-19 patients by the holidays.
Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said informal social gatherings around entertainment venues “are problematic, at least that is what the data is pointing to” and that she understands the need to take action in the face of what she said “looks to be a sustained surge in cases.”
“This is a hardship for our licensees to have to close at this hour, we know that the later hours are so important to their business,” Judd-Stein said. “But I also think I can say it is part of a greater good. The casinos are having to be part of the puzzle here to help with respect to what seems to be a big uptick so they are being responsible community partners.”
The governor’s order requires casinos, racetracks (the only one is at Plainridge Park) and simulcast centers to remove all patrons and close by 9:30 p.m., and to remain closed until at least 5 a.m. the following day. Employees are allowed to remain on the premises after closing.
On Thursday, the Gaming Commission reviewed and gave the OK to each of the licensees’ plans for ensuring a smooth shutdown by the 9:30 p.m. deadline.
Encore Boston Harbor is planning to close at 9 p.m. Friday, reopen at 9 a.m. Saturday and operate 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. each day going forward. No guests will be allowed into the casino after 8:30 p.m., announcements will inform players that closing time is near, security will begin a sweep of the gaming floor at 9 p.m. and the cage, where players cash out, will close at 9:15 p.m.
Last call for alcohol will be at 8:30 p.m. and no drinks will be served in any venue in the casino later than 8:45 p.m. The hotel at the Everett casino will be closed until further notice, and retail shops and restaurants in the casino will be open from 9 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
In Springfield, the MGM casino is planning to operate from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day with its South End Market food court open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The hotel at MGM Springfield will also close until further notice.
Last call on the casino floor will be 8:45 p.m. in Springfield and drink service will stop at 9 p.m. Announcements will be made every 10 mins beginning at 9 p.m. reminding players of the 9:30 p.m. closing time. MGM staff will sweep the floor to remove all beverages at 9:15 p.m. and security will check that all players are out of the casino at 9:30 p.m.
The slots parlor in Plainville plans to operate from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. each day beginning Saturday and will stop admitting new players after 8:30 p.m. At 8:45 p.m., Plainridge staff will begin roving the gaming floor to remind people they must be out by 9:30 p.m. The facility’s current alcohol service hours of 8 a.m. to 8:45 p.m. will not change.
During the new hours of operation at the casinos and slots parlor, all of the Gaming Commission’s COVID-19 safety guidelines will remain in place. Commissioners and staff were quick Thursday to point out that the gaming centers have been cooperative and the safety measures have been largely successful.
“The properties have all been operating under the enhanced health and safety measures and I guess it does bear repeating that all three licensees have been incredibly responsible about those measures and have taken them very seriously and have put in a lot of hard work … and the guests as well that have been visiting the properties, any issues with, for instance, not wearing masks properly, those have been few and far between,” Lillios said.
Lillios said the three facilities have notified the commission of 20 total employees who had tested positive for COVID-19 since the July reopenings. She said most of the people who tested positive were thought to have been exposed at home or at social gatherings, not at the casinos.
“We did not see any concerning pattern of multiple employees in the same division, for instance, and of course the boards of health were looking at that same information,” Lillios said.
Commissioner Bruce Stebbins asked about plans to ensure that gamblers can remain distanced from one another if or when everyone leaves at the same time, perhaps heading to elevators or exits all at once.
Captain Brian Connors, commanding officer of the Mass. State Police’s Gaming Enforcement Unit, said he was “confident we can get this done in an orderly fashion.”