What gambling looks like in a pandemic

CBS News is chronicling what has changed for the lives of Americans in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Detroit’s three casinos opened their doors in early August, nearly five months after they were shut down because of the pandemic. But gambling looks a little different these days: there are temperature checks, mask requirements, social distancing rules, and frequent disinfecting protocols. 

The crowds are smaller now, too. Casinos are only able to operate at a 15% capacity, in accordance with Michigan Gaming Control Board guidelines.

The long shutdown and reduced capacity has slashed revenue and is causing casinos to let go of hundreds of workers. Detroit’s casinos earned about $300 million in combined revenues through the end of July, a 64% drop compared to last year. 

MGM Grand Detroit had to lay off about 1,100 workers as of August 31, a spokesperson said. Those separated employees will receive health benefits through the end of September and those who are brought back by the end of 2021 will retain their seniority. 

“Due to the mandated capacity restrictions and business demand, many of our amenities and venues remain closed for the time being,” David Tsai, MGM president and chief operating officer of MGM Grand Detroit wrote in a letter to employees August 28. “With these positions currently unavailable, it has not been possible to bring back all of our employees.”

MGM Grand Detroit covid

MGM Grand Detroit / Facebook

Greektown Casino filed a notice in June that said more than 600 employees would be laid off in September, which it called “the unfortunate result of COVID-19 related business circumstances that were sudden, dramatic and beyond our control.” Casino representatives did not respond to CBS News’ request for comment about whether that figure has changed. 

MotorCity Casino has been able to call back 50% of its employees. “As demand increases and we are permitted by the state to increase capacity, our goal is to bring back more of our workforce,” MotorCity Casino’s president, Bruce Dall, said in a statement.

“Employees who have not been called back have recall rights that we will honor under our union contracts,” he added. 

Robin Ryan, who has been a poker dealer, is among those who hasn’t been called back. In June, she was struggling to get her unemployment benefits from the state of Michigan because of a fraud investigation that ended up freezing benefits for thousands of people who were rightfully claiming them. That financial insecurity caused her to fall behind on bills and at times she had to choose between buying food or medicine. 

“I did get food stamps for a short time too, for like two months, because when I talked to you before, I was not getting no money, I had no food,” Ryan said. 

She is more financially stable these days, regularly receiving unemployment benefits and survivor benefits from her ex-husband. But she is preparing for what to do when she no longer has her health insurance from the casino. 

Ryan has lupus and had lung cancer two years ago, and while she says that she’s mostly doing well, Ryan is a little “worried about insurance.” She has been working with someone from the state to find a plan that will cover all of the treatments she needs, but is concerned about the cost. 

“I’m really going to have to worry about what I have to pay out of my pocket,” Ryan said.

The casinos have implemented safety plans for gamblers and employees, in addition to the reduced capacity. All three casinos require a temperature screening before entering the casino, people have to wear masks and practice social distancing, and plexiglass has been installed at certain locations. They have added dozens of hand sanitizing stations, including standalone handwashing stations at MGM Grand, and there is also frequent cleaning of highly touched surfaces. 

Detroit Health Department records show “less than 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19” among employees at Detroit’s three casinos since August 5. The health deparment added, “[E]mployees who were in close contact with workers who tested positive were notified and quarantined.”

One table games dealer currently back at work said for the most part people are following the rules at her casino. But it can be difficult to get everyone inside to comply, which sometimes worries her about safety for workers and guests. 

“Overall, a majority of people are following (the rules), that I see,” the employee said. “But you get those bad apples…and you’re just not going to be able to please them regardless of what you do.”

Ryan said she may look for a new job once the pandemic recedes. While she’s worried about her health insurance, she’s not ready to go back to the casino even if she’s called back because of her underlying health conditions, based on her doctor’s advice. 

“She kind of looked almost panicked and said don’t, (she) told me not to go back,” Ryan said about her doctor. “Right now with no vaccine, no nothing, no I wouldn’t be ready.”

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