Nevada casinos could begin reopening as early as next week after officials approved sweeping guidelines for sanitation protocols, distancing measures and capacity reduction.

The Nevada Gaming Commission voted 4-0 Thursday to approve policies that will require all state gaming facilities to reduce capacity by at least 50%, enact strict sanitation measures and ensure large crowds don’t gather on their properties. Casinos will have to meet these, as well as federal, state and local COVID-19 prevention measures.

Each facility must submit its full plan a week before its intended reopening and must be approved by the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

“These are unprecedented times that are requiring unprecedented measures,” said NGCB Chair Sandra Douglass Morgan Thursday. “Businesses and gaming properties all around the world are confronting these same questions. We’re confident these policies are sound for our liquescences, our employees and our guests.”

At Thursday’s meeting, held remotely via video conference, commission members offered no formal timeline for when the first Nevada casinos will reopen its doors, though several larger resort properties have already begun taking reservations for later this month.

Members stressed the guidelines approved Thursday are minimum requirements, and that properties are able, and encouraged, to go beyond these stipulations. The commission also reiterated these are preliminary measures and could become more or less restrictive as the coronavirus pandemic progresses.

“I am relatively sure that these are going to change,” said Commission Member Steven Cohen. “I don’t know whether it will be more restrictive or less restrictive, but these guidelines will change as a result of additional directives and as additional information flows into the state.”

Regulation Overview

Casinos that open in the coming weeks will greet guests in a dramatically curtailed environment.

All gaming facilities, from resort-casinos on the Las Vegas strip to convenience stores in the rural northern part of the state, must reduce capacity by half. Especially for the larger casinos with thousands of square feet of gaming space, games will have to be reduced or reconfigured. Slot machines will have to be spaced to adhere to social distancing guidelines, and all table games will have their capacities reduced.

Employees also must undergo extensive sanitation and safety training, and nearly every aspect of a casino including front and back-of-house areas must undergo extensive cleaning daily, if not more frequently. Specific employees must also be designated to work with local authorities to help with contact tracing and data sharing.

The larger casinos, which generate about two-thirds of their total revenues from non-gaming activities, will have to close any venue that seats more than 250 people. Nightclubs and dayclubs must remained closed, and pools and other social areas must be regulated to assure social distancing. Operators are further instructed to designate employees specifically to break up large crowds from gathering.

Some casinos that plan to reopen in the coming weeks and months plan to hand out masks to patrons upon entry and/or require they be worn while on the premises. The policies approved Thursday won’t necessitate masks for patrons, but Morgan told commission members existing regulations won’t preclude casinos from enforcing policies requiring masks, regulations that seemed unthinkable for Nevada casinos just a few months ago.

Challenges Abound for the Gaming Industry

Thursday’s vote was a critical first step toward casino reopening, but significant logistical and practical challenges remain.

In a letter to commission members, former NGC Chair John F. O’Reilly worried the policies were simultaneously overly burdensome and not rigorous enough. He said the 50% capacity reduction would make it cost prohibitive for some casinos, particularly smaller facilities, to reopen. He was also concerned the extra cleaning and social distancing restrictions would require expensive personnel and equipment costs casinos, already facing extreme financial hardships, wouldn’t be able to bear.

He also asked commission members to consider if the new policies would protect reopening casinos from lawsuits, both tort cases should patrons become ill while on their properties, as well as larger suits against the government organizations behind these policies.

Even with these regulations designed to protect employee and guest safety, reopening will be difficult. Most gaming operators laid off or furloughed its employees, impacting thousands of jobs associated with the gaming industry. Not only will gaming companies have to bring back the employees, they will also have to train them about working in the industry during the midst of a viral outbreak.

Employees Express Concerns

The employees themselves are also concerned about returning to work. The Culinary Workers Union, which represents more than 60,000 Nevadans employed in the hospital industry, is asking that all 60,000 of its members be tested before returning to work as part of demands that go beyond the specifics in the NGC’s guidelines.

“It is imperative that Nevada has the most robust protections for workers and guests in place when casinos are open,” wrote Geoconda Argüello-Kline, Culinary secretary-treasurer, in a letter to the NGC. “We have to reassure guests that we are ready for them, that they will be safe when they come back. If we don’t get it right when we reopened, the long-term consequences for our industry will be devastating.

“There can be no shortcuts in how we prepare to meet guidelines.”

Those Guests still may not return quickly. More than 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since March, and thousands of news COVID-19 cases are still being diagnosed every day. Even when casinos open, it could be months or years until patronage levels return to pre-coronavirus levels.

But before that can happen, the casinos have to reopen, and commission members believe this is the right first step in an unprecedented, and fluid, situation.

“Our reopening will be a slow and strategic effort as we need the industry’s patience and support as we strive to protect both employees and patrons,” said Commission Member Deborah Fuetsch before Thursday’s vote on the health regulations. “With that said, I am confident that the policies presented today lay the health and safety foundation necessary for licensees to build upon and develop their own reopening plans.”

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