State gaming regulators postpone return to in-person work

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BOSTON (SHNS) – The Massachusetts Gaming Commission is planning to delay its return to working out of its Boston offices until “at least sometime in October” amid concerns about the Delta variant and the risks of office settings, Executive Director Karen Wells said Thursday morning.

The commission had been planning to launch a hybrid work model in which employees would return to its offices, at least some days, at 101 Federal Street in the Financial District starting Sept. 13. Wells said she thought it would be prudent to bump the start date into October and commissioners said they supported the decision.

“We are concerned about not only the physical health of our employees, but also the mental health because there may be some anxiety surrounding that and going back into an office where people are congregating together,” Wells said. “So we’re just trying very hard to be mindful of both things.”

As the Delta variant has propelled another wave of COVID-19 cases, including breakthrough infections among people fully vaccinated against the virus, some large employers have delayed their return to more normal office operations and some have mandated workers be vaccinated. Wells said the commission is adhering to the Baker administration’s recommendation not to require vaccination as a condition of employment.

Commissioner Gayle Cameron, a member of the commission’s internal working group that has been crafting a return-to-work policy, said a meeting on Wednesday included a lengthy discussion of concerns among employees.

“There were real concerns about being uncomfortable working next to someone that they don’t know if they’re vaccinated or not,” she said. “There were a lot of concerns that we talked through.”

In the almost 18 months that the commission’s staff has been working mostly from home, Wells said the remote setup has been “very successful,” making her more comfortable with the delay. She also said employees will still have the option to come into the office on some days, as they have had in recent months.

Like Wells did in her remarks to the commission, MGC Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein echoed the points Gov. Charlie Baker made Wednesday about Massachusetts having the second-lowest COVID-19 hospitalization rate and second-highest vaccination rate in the country and suggested a broad survey of the commission’s workforce to better understand the variety of concerns.

“We are in a really good place in terms of public health status. So I just want to keep that in mind. I do understand that people still have consternation,” she said. “And just thinking ahead, we have an international conference coming in in September. So I just want to make sure we’re being somewhat consistent and thinking about all the issues as we move forward.”

Wells said she plans to bring the “quite comprehensive” plan for a hybrid working model that the internal team has put together to the commission on Aug. 19. The group is also looking at how it might be able to reconfigure some office space to spread things out and ease some employee concerns, she said.

Wells and commissioners said Thursday they are eager to see what Baker’s office advises in light of the latest federal guidance, which recommends that people in areas of substantial or high transmission — including Suffolk County, where the Gaming Commission offices are located — wear masks in indoor public places regardless of vaccination status.

“We’ve been served well by following advice coming out of that office so far, so I look forward to that,” Cameron said.

None of the three gaming facilities in Massachusetts are located in areas of substantial or high COVID-19 transmission as defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, though both Encore Boston Harbor and Plainridge Park Casino are located in municipalities that border counties considered to have substantial spread.

Loretta Lillios, director of the Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, told commissioners Thursday morning that COVID-19 cases among gaming center employees match the general trend of cases in the state.

Encore and MGM Springfield require all employees to wear a mask unless they show proof of vaccination, Lillios said. Plainridge Park “follows the CDC guidance of wearing masks if not fully vaccinated and incentivizing vaccination among their employee population” and has a “high degree of vaccination” based on self-reports from employees.

Lillios said the three facilities are mindful of the latest CDC recommendations and are monitoring the situation around the Delta variant. She said all three licensees “have committed to continuing to follow all CDC and (Department of Public Health) guidance.”

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