UNCASVILLE — Temperatures will be checked as gamblers arrive. Every other slot machine will be disabled for social distancing. Players at some blackjack tables will be separated from dealers and other players by plexiglass. Air will circulate through purifying ultraviolet light. Masks must be worn.
Plans are well under way to reopen the Mohegan Sun some time after Memorial Day and test the notion of whether gamblers can be made to feel safe going to a casino refitted to survive in the age of the novel coronavirus.
“When you come here, it’s not going to be like when you came here for New Year’s two years ago,” said Chuck Bunnell, the tribe’s chief of staff.
Unknown is the exact day of the reopening and whether it will occur in concert or at odds with Gov. Ned Lamont’s view of what can safely be opened without risking an outbreak of COVID-19. With 25% percent of gross slots revenue going to the state, Lamont has a powerful financial incentive to see gamblers come back.
But Lamont had a quick, almost visceral answer at his daily briefing in Hartford on Tuesday to a question about the resumption of casino gambling:
Neither the Mohegans nor the Mashantucket Pequots, the owners of the nearby Foxwoods Resorts Casino, are pushing to reopen next week. COVID-19 restrictions imposed by Lamont are scheduled to ease on May 20, though hardly disappear. Malls and hair salons can open, but not bars or hotels. Restaurants will be limited to takeout and outdoor dining, and open businesses will be limited to 50% of capacity.
Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods each closed voluntarily on March 17, avoiding a confrontation with a governor who had barred gatherings of more than 250 people on March 12 and then closed all non-essential businesses on March 20. They were the last two casinos open in the Northeast. New York closed its casinos the day before, Massachusetts on March 15 and Rhode Island on March 14.
Eventually, all 989 commercial and tribal casinos in the U.S. turned out the lights, many for the first time. The American Gaming Association says 23 have reopened, though none in the northeast. Las Vegas is gunning for Memorial Day. Louisiana is opening this week.
“You’re seeing more and more commercial casinos around the country that are either already open or will be opening in a relatively short period of time,” said Ray Pineault, the regional president of Mohegan Gaming and Entertainment, the tribal entity that owns the Sun and commercial casinos in Nevada, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Washington and Canada.
The tribes would like to open with the blessing of the state, which Bunnell calls the tribe’s partner. The Mohegans are aiming for the week between Memorial Day and June 1. Lamont sidestepped a question Tuesday about his ability to keep Mohegan Sun and Foxwoods closed, given the sovereign status of their owners and locales.
“You know me, I like to work through everything I can in a collaborative way, but I do feel pretty strong that it’s too early to open up big casinos, gathering places, folks coming in from outside,” Lamont said. “It’s too early.”
He’s talked to James Gessner, the tribal chairman of the Mohegans, about their evolving plans for a phased reopening of the resort, one that the chairman says mimics the state’s multi-step plan. The theater, arena and convention space would remain closed. Restaurant capacity would be limited. Security would enforce four-person limits on elevators. Once it opens, the plan is to operate 24/7.
But the governor remains wary of reopening two of the world’s largest casinos, even on a limited basis. They draw from a wide market — good for business, bad for limiting the spread of a contagion. He is especially concerned about the Connecticut casinos opening before their regional competitors.
“The idea that we would potentially open early and people have an incentive to drive up from New York or drive down from Massachusetts is the opposite of every we are trying to accomplish,” Lamont said. “We want people to stay, stay local.”
Gessner says the tribe will not advertise the Sun in out-of-state markets for the immediate future.
Here in Uncasville, a village on the Thames River that is home to the Mohegan Tribal Nation and the Mohegan Sun, the focus is on reopening a casino resort that closed on March 17 for the first time since it opened on October 12, 1996.
The temperature of every worker entering the complex is checked with a non-contact device, as will be every patron. Purell hand sanitizers are set in holders with the Mohegan Sun logo and a message: “A clean hand is a winning hand.”
Normally six to a table, blackjack will be limited to three players. Patrons will have the option of playing at unaltered tables or some protected by Plexiglas. Cards and chips will pass through slots, and sheets of Plexiglas will separate the players.
If the Plexiglas tables prove popular, others will be modified. The tribe has invested heavily in Plexiglas, which will be evident to anyone checking in at the casino’s hotel. The front desk now resembles a bank, with glass separating staff and public. Credit cards and key cards will be exchanged through rectangular openings.
Slots give casinos their soundtracks, with clanging bells and snippets of songs. On Tuesday, as Gessner toured the facility with Bunnell, Pineault and the casino’s boss, Jeffrey Hamilton, the only sound was the faint hum of vacuum cleaners. Everything was being cleaned, even the multi-story stone waterfall.
“First time that’s been dry in 20 years,” said Hamilton, a tribal member and long-time casino employee who succeeded Pineault last year as the president and general manager of the tribe’s flagship, the Sun.
Among the rows of slots machines, workers wore headlamps. They vacuumed and wiped down machines powered down nearly two months ago, extinguishing what amounts to ambient light in a casino.
At the base of the waterfall, where patrons used to dine and drink, an illuminated blue sign says, “Mohegan Sun will be closed for two weeks starting at 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17.”
That proved to be optimistic.
On the night the Connecticut casinos closed, there were no deaths and 68 cases in the state and 100 deaths and 5,000 cases in the U.S. Today, there are more than 3,100 deaths in Connecticut attributed to COVID-19. Nationally, the death toll has exceeded 85,000.
Two weeks has turned into two months. About 15 percent of the Connecticut workforce is unemployed, and the state is expected to end the fiscal year next month with a $900 million shortfall. The gap projected for the following year is more than $2 billion.
Connecticut made nearly $629 million off gambling last year: $370 million from the lottery, $255 million from slots and $3 million from OTB.
Not a dime has come in at the Mohegan Sun in since March 17. Debt service and other expenses costs MGE, the tribe’s gambling subsidiary, about a million dollars a day, Gessner said. Both tribes are heavily leveraged, each with publicly reported debts last year of approximately $2 billion.
The mask worn by Bunnell, who used to be a senior staffer for U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, did not hide his frustration with the group advising Lamont on how to ease Connecticut’s economy back into gear. Mohegan Sun is small city with shops, restaurants, gambling floors, a convention center, theater and hotels, not a single large gathering space.
“They looked at these mini-cities as arenas,” Bunnell said. “Well, there is an arena here, but that the arena is not opening in phase one. The expo center is not opening in phase one.”
Bunnell noted that the Mohegans not only operate in six states, but they are developing a casino in South Korea. It also has rights to a casino in Greece. Their reopening plan incorporates the best thinking in the industry, he said.
“It’s bits and pieces from around the globe,” he said, describing the approach as “copy it, and make it better.”
That applies to the four-phase plan Lamont has endorsed for Connecticut.
“If he’s saying that restaurants in Connecticut are doing X,Y and Z, okay, we’re going to do something similar to that, but make it better,” Bunnell said. “We’re going to make it more stringent. To get into a restaurant here, you are going to go through a thermal check, even to get into the building before you go to that restaurant.”
Gessner, whose son, nephew and “countless cousins” work at the casino with other tribal members, said he and other tribal leaders have personal and financial stakes in ensuring the resort is safe — and feels safe.
“When I talk to the governor, I say it’s like if you go to your local grocery store and if you’re uncomfortable and you feel unsafe, you’re not going to go there,” Gessner said.
On that point, Lamont agrees: the ultimate arbiter will be the public. Even if he thinks it’s too soon to take its temperature, figuratively and literally.