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Ask the Slot Expert: Readers' comments about reopening casinos

27 May 2020

Here are some of your comments about reopening casinos.

Question: I really don't care what kind of regulations they come up with, just get it together so they can open. I have a reservation to the Nugget in Biloxi in June, so hoping that will be open by then. The reality of the situation is the mask really don't do what every body thinks they do. The virus is so small the mask will not stop it. So wearing a mask just makes people feel like they are doing something good. The virus is no worse than the regular flew, in fact it has had a lesser effect. Well you Take care.

Answer: The virus is small. The purpose of the mask is not to block the virus itself in the breath of the wearer, but to block the droplets and aerosols that the virus rides on, which are much larger.

Coronavirus Face Masks: What You Should Know on WebMD:

When someone who has COVID-19 coughs, sneezes, or talks, they send tiny droplets with the coronavirus into the air. That's where a mask can help. A face mask covers your mouth and nose. It can block the release of virus-filled droplets into the air when you cough or sneeze. This helps slow the spread of COVID-19.

COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer? on the Mayo Clinic site:

Asking everyone to wear cloth masks can help reduce the spread of COVID-19 by people who have the disease but don't realize it. And countries that required face masks, testing, isolation and social distancing early in the pandemic seem to have had some success slowing the disease's spread.

I'd like to see your evidence that Covid-19 is no worse than the regular flu and in what aspect. Mortality Rate? You might be right. If the U.S. can ever implement an effective testing program, we might find that far more people were infected and had mild to no symptoms, lowering the mortality rate.

There are two ways in which COVID-19 is categorically worse than flu: One, there is no vaccine for COVID-19. Two, as far as we know now, no one is immune to the virus without having caught it.

Finally, the CDC estimates that as many as 62,000 people in the U.S. died from the flu from October 1, 2019 to April 4, 2020. At the current rate, the COVID-19 death toll in the U.S. will pass 100,000 on Wednesday or Thursday.

Coronavirus Disease 2019 vs. the Flu:

In the U.S, 98,223 people have died of COVID-19, as of May 26, 2020.

In the U.S., from Oct. 1, 2019 – Apr. 4, 2020, the CDC estimates that 24,000 to 62,000 people died from the flu. (The CDC does not know the exact number because the flu is not a reportable disease in most parts of the U.S.)

The COVID-19 situation is changing rapidly. Since this disease is caused by a new virus, people do not have immunity to it, and a vaccine may be many months away. Doctors and scientists are working to estimate the mortality rate of COVID-19, but at present, it is thought to be substantially higher than that of most strains of the flu.

Question: I enjoy reading your emails and thought the topic today was especially timely given that some casinos in the Phoenix Arizona area are opening on Friday (May 15). I usually go to Harrah’s Ak Chin but found their opening guidance a bit light on screening or other protections for guests. Here’s their "plan".

By contrast, the 3 Gila River casinos in the area have a much more comprehensive plan including testing of all employees and detailed screening occurring before a guest walks in their doors:

Adding a third – also with a more robust plan than Harrah’s Ak Chin!

Time will tell how things will go but as much as I miss the slots, I’ll wait and let others be guinea pigs in these experiments!

Answer: Thanks for the kind words and the links. I've been so focused on the Las Vegas scene that I didn't realize that some casinos were already reopening.

It seems like every casino is doing temperature checks -- definitely on employees, maybe even on guests. Because so many infected people can be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, I wonder how many infected people will pass the temperature check. Nevertheless, it would be negligent to not do the temperature check.

Last week I did a comparison of the risk factors in going to the grocery store versus going to the casino. Both environments have a large volume of air and both are taking measures to limit the number of customers and to encourage social distancing. The big difference that makes going to the casino riskier than going to Kroger's is the amount of time in each environment, maybe an hour in the grocery store and many hours in the casino.

I left out one additional major difference: movement. You are constantly on the move in the store and constantly sedentary in the casino. When you walk, you push the air in front of you to one side or the other. Air settles around you while you sit.

Here's a discouraging thought I read recently: If you can smell someone's smoke, you're breathing the air that used to be around that person.

We go to Vegas once or twice a year. Spend about $4,000, not big spenders. Family from around the country so we can enjoy getting together.

We also go to meet new people. Talk to them at the machines, or over meals. We also meet people we have connected with online. It is fun and relaxing.

Now I see everyone wearing masks and gloves, sitting at every third slot machine. Can't walk around trying to find the the machine I want to play or standing watching someone else play. Long lines for having a sit down meal.

It doesn't sound like fun anymore.

It maybe a long time before we go back.

One argument against wearing masks is that they give some people a false sense of security. I think the effect is more pronounced with gloves. How many people touch their faces while wearing gloves? How many people know the proper way to remove gloves so they don't spread contamination?

I don't wear gloves to go shopping. I didn't wear gloves in the casino before the shutdown and I won't wear them once the casinos reopen.

When I return, I will do what I did before. Wipe down the buttons and surfaces on the machine. Assume my hands are contaminated after touching something and (try to) avoid touching my face until I've sanitized or washed my hands.

I don't go crazy with this, though. The press recently made a big deal about the CDC's saying that the virus does not spread easily on surfaces. The CDC has always been saying that; nothing has changed. It just rearranged the information on the page. (By the way, the key word is easily. Remember the infection that was traced to a shared salt shaker?)

Physical distancing at slots, tables, lines, restaurants, etc. is just the way it will be for some time.

I would say that it will be quite hard to go back. I will wait until we either have a vaccine, or herd immunity well confirmed. I doubt the casinos will do enough for me to feel safe.

You're not alone. Many people will wait a while, especially if they're in one of the high risk groups.

I'd like to hear what casinos are doing with their ventilation systems. When I got a new furnace a few years ago, I installed an ultraviolet light that killed germs in the air flowing by. Do casinos already have such a system or are they installing one? Are they increasing the number of times the air in the casino is turned over?

I am pleased to respond to you, I have emailed Frank and 'Groch' in past years with comments and I find your posts always interesting as well.

I live in the Chicagoland area. I will take great pains to drive up to 2 hours to literally drive past Illinois casinos to destinations like Potawatomie Casino in Milwaukee, or Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, MI. The experience at those casinos far outweighs Illinois' fairly dismal casino experiences.

I think this is a similar experience that you may have, living in the Las Vegas area; you have your favorite places (more the locals' casinos) vs the touristy Strip casinos.

Over the past 15 years, I have gone to the casino at least once a year to as many as 3 times in a calendar year. I almost always enjoy my experience. It IS MY vacation, and there aren't many other places where I can enjoy my time, eat my choice of foods, and be entertained 24/7, all within my budget. I used to enjoy staying on the Strip for the initial years, but as my tastes (and budget) changed, I find better value getting comped at Boyd properties, so they have been my mainstay for the past 6+ years (no resort fees, yet). I do notice some changes, but the advantages are better than the 'Strip gouging'.

I do enjoy some of the casino buffets (I no longer can justify the extreme pricing at Wynn or Bellagio), or even Makino's for AYCE sushi, which is within my acceptable budget. I honestly think that if servers are the ONLY ones behind the glass to serve patrons, buffets can still be a viable eating venue. Regular restaurant service can just be adjusted by incorporating dividers between booths as part of the decor. Tables will need to be spaced with more distance, but I think (hope) that a workable solution will be devised.

Last year we went to some shows (yes, I agreed to make my beautiful AP [stolen from Frank S] happy). They were smaller venues (Blue Man Group), but people can be spaced to still make it feasible. I really don't like larger venues, so I can see how Raider games will be a challenge.

Gaming (sigh): that will be the most interesting. I play table games; blackjack, 3 Card Poker, Pai Gow, etc. I spend a lot of time at slots. I can see spacing at slots, table games will suffer with only 3 players max per table. Or maybe clear plexi partitions between players with only dealers handling the cards, not sure exactly how, but I think can be figured out.

I actually had my first trip this year (with the hopes of 2 more later in 2020) cancelled for this past March. I actually got a refund on airfare, so I won that bet, everyone else I know was issued ONLY a credit. Boyd promises my 4-5 day comp will still be valid whenever they open again. I am hoping by late July, or August, and I am still hoping for a follow-up trip in November.

Thanks for the kind words and the thoughtful letter.

I've been in Las Vegas for almost five years now. I haven't bet a penny in a strip casino in that time. The only times I've been to the strip were to go to the Global Gaming Expo, to meet a visiting relative, and to get the battery in my watch changed at the watchmaker's authorized repair facility. All of my play has been at the locals casinos. With the exception of Red Rock, which was featured in the movie 21, I doubt whether many tourists have heard of the casinos.

I have one significant advantage over you, though. My usual places are all much closer to me than the strip. I'd have to drive farther -- and possibly pay a parking fee -- to get worse games.

As a tourist, I stayed on the strip. As a local, I want some place more reasonably priced, maybe less crowded, and closer to home.

I thought I would have more information about how the casinos in Las Vegas will reopen on June 4 (tentative date, may be changed), but Governor Sisolak's press conference for today (May 26) was cancelled because he was potentially exposed to the virus last week. He's going to release a video instead of holding a press conference. The video hasn't been released yet.

Casino buffets were one of the first services to close and will probably be one of the last to reopen -- if they reopen at all. Some articles have said that this is the end for buffets. Having servers increases costs too much. Capacity caps and distancing mean that they can't serve enough patrons per hour to be profitable. (Are they even profitable? One article said many buffets are not profit centers. They're loss leaders to get people in the casino and on the gaming floor.) Dining at a buffet tends to take longer than at a restaurant and patrons may not want to spend so much time near strangers, even with distancing.

The New York Times published an article about Las Vegas today, A Socially Distanced Las Vegas? What Are The Odds?. The article has a picture that shows how slot machines were rearranged for spacing. The layout looks pretty standard to me, but I don't know how the machines were arranged before. The article also has a picture of the plexiglass barriers for table games made by Screaming Images on a blackjack table (and multiple pump bottles of hand sanitizer on the supervisor's lectern behind the table).

I'd like to see a smoke test on these barriers. Release some artificial smoke in one of the sections and see where the smoke goes. Are the barriers effective enough that you can have more people at the table? Are they effective at all?

With the exceptions of the cards in a high-limit baccarat game and the dice at craps, chips are the the only things players will touch om Las Vegas, according to the reopening guidelines I've seen. Even though transmission through objects may be rare (see The Case of the Sickening Salt Shaker), frequent touching and circulation of objects raises the risk. If I were a dealer, I would wear gloves and sanitize them frequently (I don't trust myself to not touch my face). I would wash or sanitize them before taking them off, probably even after I learn the correct way to remove them. Players should be encouraged to wear gloves too.

Earlier I said that I don't wear gloves. My supermarket has a cart concierge who wipes down each cart after use and I always take a few wipes from the dispenser on my way in so I can wipe off the handle again and wipe my hands a few times before the alcohol evaporates while wandering the aisles. (I am a hopelessly disorganized grocery shopper. Today my scattershot approach was an advantage because the store finally had French bread out on my third pass by the bakery section.)

I'm not very worried about a casual, one-off touch. Chips however are constantly going back and forth between the dealers and the players. That's frequent touch, not casual. Different rules apply.

I haven't received any reopening offers yet, so I don't know how generous the casinos will be to encourage people to come back. Most people out here think the offers will be better than before. Many strip casinos, for instance, have gone back to free self parking, at least temporarily.

A casino manager in the Times article said that he would probably have to raise midweek table minimums because of capacity limits. I don't think video poker paytables will be lowered, but I don't know. Players playing the high-paying paytables may also eat in the restaurants. If the casino lowers paytables and drives away those players, will it recoup the total value of those players from the remaining players playing the lowered paytables?

Please continue to share your thoughts and experiences about casinos reopening.

What do you think about tournaments? They require a number of people to be in a confined area for a length of time. Are they gone for the time being?

John Robison

John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots
John Robison
John Robison is an expert on slot machines and how to play them. John is a slot and video poker columnist and has written for many of gaming’s leading publications. He holds a master's degree in computer science from the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology.

You may hear John give his slot and video poker tips live on The Good Times Show, hosted by Rudi Schiffer and Mike Schiffer, which is broadcast from Memphis on KXIQ 1180AM Friday afternoon from from 2PM to 5PM Central Time. John is on the show from 4:30 to 5. You can listen to archives of the show on the web anytime.

Books by John Robison:

The Slot Expert's Guide to Playing Slots