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Card clubs offer reopening plan as tribal and Vegas casinos get back in the game

The Gardens Casino in 2016
Card players try their luck at the Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens in 2016.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

With Las Vegas casinos expected to open next month and a handful of tribal casinos in California already taking bets, Los Angeles County’s card club operators put forward a set of health protocols that they hope will enable them to reopen within weeks.

The 20-page list of protocols agreed upon by the six card clubs was presented to Gov. Gavin Newsom this week. It includes some proposed changes already adopted by tribal and Las Vegas casinos, such as increasing the distance between players at card tables, cleaning more frequently and taking the temperatures of gamblers as they enter.

The protocols were drafted with the help of medical experts at UCLA and USC and have been presented to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in hopes of getting the agency’s blessing, according to representatives of the card clubs. The clubs shut in mid-March as the coronavirus spread through California.

At a news conference Friday, Newsom said the state hopes to release guidelines to reopen casinos and card clubs in the “next days and weeks.”

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“We are guardedly optimistic,” said Juan Garza, executive director of the California Cities for Self Reliance, a joint powers authority that represents the six L.A. County cities that are home to card clubs. “It’s absolutely vital that these local economic engines open up now.”

The card rooms in Los Angeles County employed more than 10,000 workers before the pandemic forced them to close.

Still, health experts say gamblers in casinos and card clubs are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus because of the density of people in small spaces and the common practice of touching cards, chips, silverware, tables and other surfaces that can harbor the virus.

“Since COVID-19 is spread via respiratory droplets and even breathing, there is a risk of eating and drinking around a card table, which by definition must be done without masks,” said Brandon Brown, an associate professor at UC Riverside’s Department of Social Medicine, Population and Public Health.

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The clubs’ proposal does not set a maximum number of players for each card table; instead, it says the number will be “based on expert guidance taking into account the table dimensions, the play of the game, and any other precautions.” The proposal also suggests installing plexiglass barriers “where physical distancing is not feasible.”

Garza said the card clubs are willing to discuss a maximum number of players per table if county health officials feel that is necessary.

Employees and guests would be required to wear masks or other face coverings, which would be provided to all employees and made available to guests.

Where practical, players would not be allowed to touch the cards, according to the proposal, and cards and chips touched by players would be cleaned frequently or discarded after use.

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Keith Sharp, general counsel for the Gardens Casino in Hawaiian Gardens, said that in blackjack the cards could be dealt to the players face up on the table, eliminating the need for the players to touch them. The rules of the game would not change substantially, he said.

The seats and rails that players lean on at the card tables would be sanitized each time a player leaves a table. At restaurants and bars, the food would be served on disposable plates and flatware, according to the proposed rules.

The card clubs are playing catch-up with the Las Vegas and tribal casinos, some of which have opened and many others of which are planning to open in the next few days.

In Las Vegas, about 35 properties, including the Sahara and Treasure Island, began accepting reservations Friday , hoping to draw guests looking to travel on the Memorial Day holiday weekend. Wynn-Encore hopes to open Tuesday.

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At Las Vegas casinos, employees must wear masks and guests are strongly encouraged to do so. The number of seats at blackjack tables will be reduced to three, down from six, to encourage social distancing. At craps tables the maximum number of players will be cut to six, down from 15. Every other slot machine will be deactivated, and every other chair for the slot machines will be removed to discourage crowding.

In Southern California, Viejas Casino and Sycuan Casino near San Diego opened this week. Several other tribal casinos — including Spotlight 29 Casino in Coachella and its sister property Tortoise Rock Casino in Twentynine Palms, Harrah’s Resort Southern California and Morongo Casino, Resort and Spa near Cabazon — reopened Friday.

The tribal casinos have adopted similar changes such as extra cleaning, requirements that guests wear masks and protocols to keep players from crowding around card games and slot machines.

Card club operators began meeting a month ago to develop the protocols in hopes of speeding up the reopening of the gaming rooms, which generate up to 70% of the tax base for the small, working-class communities where they are located.

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Haig Kelegian Sr., a part owner of the Bicycle Hotel & Casino in Bell Gardens and the Crystal Casino in Compton, said card club operators drafted the protocols because they were not getting clear direction from the state on how to reopen.

“We were ready to do what is necessary for the safety of the people, but we didn’t know what that was,” he said.

City of Commerce council members wrote to Newsom on Thursday, urging him to let the card clubs reopen to help boost the tax base in their city — home to the Commerce Casino — as well as in neighboring Bell Gardens, Hawaiian Gardens, Inglewood, Gardena and Compton.

“The residents of these cities are primarily people of color, many of whom are essential workers, who rely upon the services provided by their cities,” the letter said. “Like these cities, the City of Commerce greatly relies on revenues from the Commerce Casino in order to provide youth programs, feed our seniors and ensure public safety needs are met for all citizens. Without revenue support from the Commerce Casino, the City of Commerce suffers, and in turn so do the residents.”

Card rooms in Los Angeles County generated $2.3 billion in economic benefits and about $71 million in local taxes, according to a study commissioned by the California Gaming Assn., a trade group for the state’s more than 70 card clubs. The report, released late last year, estimated that card rooms statewide generated $1.64 billion in wages and benefits for more than 32,000 jobs, with about $500 million in state and local taxes.

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Sharp, the Gardens Casino general counsel, said the card club could turn a profit even if the government limits the number of guests allowed inside.

“We think we could break even or better than even,” he said. “We think it can be done.”

Jason Ader, a gaming industry expert and chief executive of SpringOwl Asset Management, which specializes in the industry, expects that card clubs will struggle if the number of guests is limited.

“I’m predicting it will be hard to make money,” he said.


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