Gaming regulators navigating conflicting mask guidance

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In this May 3, 2021 photo a woman plays a slot machine while wearing a mask in the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City, N.J. On May 11 the American Gaming Association released statistics showing that the U.S. commercial casino industry matched its best quarter ever in terms of revenue in the first three months of 2021, taking in more than $11.1 billion as customers continued returning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Wayne Parry)

BOSTON (SHNS) – The casinos, slots parlor and simulcasting facilities in Massachusetts are expected to adhere to the Department of Public Health’s latest advisory around mask-wearing, but the Gaming Commission clarified Wednesday that the properties should also keep federal recommendations in mind.

Gaming regulators held an emergency meeting late Wednesday morning to address the confusion created by the divergence between the masking guidelines the U.S. Centers for Disease Control announced last week and those that Gov. Charlie Baker detailed on Friday.

When the Gaming Commission rescinded most of its COVID-19 restrictions in May, the commission required licensees to comply with “all COVID-19-related orders and advisories issued by the Governor or the Commonwealth of Massachusetts that remain in effect, as well as any applicable CDC guidelines.”

“We are in an unprecedented situation, especially with this slightly different sets of guidelines from the CDC and DPH, and that puts us in a tough position because we’re not public health experts so it’s not as if we can substantively evaluate the guidance,” Executive Director Karen Wells said. “So it’s just a matter of trying to do the right thing here. I don’t think there’s necessarily a wrong answer here, I think everyone here is certainly trying to do the right thing.”

The CDC recommends that vaccinated people wear a mask when they are in public indoor places in counties that have substantial or high COVID-19 transmission — every gaming licensee’s host county fit that criteria as of Wednesday. The DPH on Friday recommended that vaccinated people who are or live with someone who is at greater risk for a severe case of COVID-19 to wear a mask in all public indoor places.

After about 90 minutes of discussion and debate that revealed disagreements among the four commissioners, the regulators eventually settled on new language that now requires licensees to run their businesses in compliance with all of the governor’s advisories “and in consideration of any applicable CDC guidelines.”

That means that the casinos, slot parlor and simulcast centers will recommend that patrons who are vaccinated wear a mask if they or someone in their household is more vulnerable to the virus. The commissioners said that posting signage that tells patrons that the CDC would recommend they wear masks indoors regardless of vaccination or risk status (if that particular venue’s county fits into the CDC’s criteria for high or substantial transmission) would be sufficient to show consideration of the CDC’s suggestions.

The commission also dug into the masking requirements for casino and slot parlor employees Wednesday.

Encore Boston Harbor said about 70 percent of its workers are fully vaccinated and that it requires vaccination verification before an employee is allowed to go mask-free. Jacqui Krum, Encore Boston Harbor’s senior vice president and general counsel, said about half of the Everett casino’s guests wear masks.

MGM Springfield said it is mandating that all employees, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask while at work. Vice President and Counsel Gus Kim told the commission that about 50 percent of the casino’s employees are vaccinated.

Plainridge Park Casino said it is not requiring any of its employees to wear masks. General Manager North Grounsell estimated that between 60 percent and 65 percent of workers are vaccinated. That combination did not sit well with at least three commissioners.

Commissioner Gayle Cameron pointed out that Gov. Baker said his administration’s guidance was based in part on the fact that 70 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated.

“When I hear that it’s below that at PPC, I’m just a bit concerned,” she said. Cameron added, “I guess I’m just a little uncomfortable with PPC not requiring their employees to mask because I do think it sends a message to the patrons and to the other employees who are vaccinated and are very safety conscious.”

Grounsell told commissioners that the slots parlor had not mandated that unvaccinated employees wear masks based on “advice of our corporate counsel for a variety of different reasons that are highly technical and have to do with employment law.”

After Cameron and Commissioners Eileen O’Brien and Enrique Zuniga expressed similar concerns about Plainridge’s policy, Grounsell told commissioners that his property would be willing to start requiring proof of vaccination for employees who wish to go unmasked while on the job.

Commissioners ultimately did not take any action Wednesday to require Plainridge to change its policy but said they were comfortable moving ahead having not addressed that with a vote in light of Grounsell’s offer.

O’Brien at one point suggested that the commission require that licensees have all employees wear masks if their facility is in a county that the CDC considers to have high or substantial COVID-19 transmission. But that was not something Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein was interested in.

“What I’m concerned about is now adding a condition that is outside the guidance of either the CDC or the state and adding our own new public health guidance to our three licensees,” the chairwoman said. “I would hesitate to start going down that road.”

The Gaming Commission has been closely overseeing the operations of the two casinos, one slots parlor and horse track, and two simulcast centers since the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the closure of all the facilities for nearly four months last year. Through last fall and this spring, the commission rolled back restrictions until allowing the licensees to resume mostly normal pre-pandemic operations at the end of May.

“Let’s just hope that all the trends go in the right direction and our continued vigilance works,” Judd-Stein said Wednesday. “This is a longer haul than we expected.”

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