The first casinos are reopening and it's a very different experience for tourists

In Idaho, the Coeur d’Alene Casino Resort Hotel, operated by the Native American Coeur d’Alene Tribe, became one of the many casinos in the United States to reopen this month. Being one of the primary sources of both jobs and revenue for the tribe, this was seen as a welcome development. But since we now live in the world of the novel coronavirus, the casino experience is quite different from what visitors saw in the old days. Many of the staples that gamblers took for granted are missing, possibly forever, and other features have been modified to remain in compliance with social distancing rules. Will the crowds return in their previous numbers if this is the new normal? (NBC News)

Since the Worley, Idaho, casino reopened April 27, after being closed for more than a month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, its operations have looked very different.

Rather than waiting in line for all-you-can-eat crab and prime rib at the casino’s buffet — which is closed indefinitely — guests queued up at the main entrance, standing 6 feet apart, to have their temperature taken before coming inside.

On the casino floor, every other gaming machine was turned off and patrons no longer sat shoulder to shoulder. Large monitors hanging on the walls looped a video instructing people on how to properly smoke or sip a drink while wearing a mask, a new requirement for all employees and guests.

The Coeur d’Alene not alone in this decision to reopen, and plenty of other Native American casino operations are either already open or are preparing to follow suit quickly. The Turning Stone Casino and Resort in upstate New York, operated by the Oneida Nation Tribe is preparing to resume operations also. Around the country, nearly 100 casinos are either back in operation or preparing for their grand reopenings. And they’re implementing most of the same changes in order to do so as safely as possible.

One of the biggest changes is that the “all you can eat” buffet is a thing of the past and may never be coming back. The restaurants that are open at the resort are only allowing 25% of their former capacity, with plenty of space between tables and plexiglass guards in front of the registers. The spa and the swimming pools are also still closed. And while wearing anything to conceal your identity used to be forbidden on the gaming floor, masks are now required.

When I wrote about the problematic question of reopening casinos last month, I suggested that these should be some of the last businesses to come back online because of the unique nature of the operation. Some of the challenges I brought up have already been addressed by the Coeur d’Alene Casino. For one thing, they don’t have any table games like blackjack so there are no chips or cards being handled by everyone to worry about.

Also, nearly all of the gambling transactions are conducted using credit cards and casino cards for the slot machines, so handling cash isn’t an issue. Rather than physically moving (or removing) any of the slot machines, the casino is simply leaving every other machine turned off so visitors don’t wind up sitting next to each other.

But one thing that hasn’t changed is the fact that the casino remains an industry of tourism. That means that they will be luring in plenty of people from distant locations. At the moment, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on the tribe’s reservation nor anywhere in Benewah County, where the casino is located. But now there will be a flood of visitors arriving and mixing with the tribe members who work at the resort. It only takes one mistake for an outbreak to flare up. And that’s what everyone will be watching for. If the tribe can accomplish this safely, then business may indeed return to usual, at least under the rules of the new normal. But if they suddenly see a big spike in COVID cases, this will have proven to be a terrible decision.