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Most COVID-19 restrictions at Mass. casinos can be lifted beginning Saturday

Guests and employees will see some precautions remain in place.

Workers depart a main gate to the Encore Boston Harbor casino, April 28, in Everett. AP Photo/Steven Senne
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The Massachusetts Gaming Commission voted Wednesday to lift most of its COVID-19 related regulations on the state’s two casinos and slots parlor, effective Saturday at 12:01 a.m., in lock-step with the dismissal of restrictions across other industries.

Guests and employees at Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield, and Plainridge Park Casino will see some remnants of the pandemic precautions, however.

Per their motion, commissioners voted unanimously to lift restrictions so long as the operators follow certain conditions, which all agreed to meet.

Those include following all COVID-19 advisories and orders issued by Gov. Charlie Baker and state officials, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control guidelines; keeping a pandemic safety officer employed until further notice; continuing to report positive COVID-19 cases to state gaming officials and local boards of health; and continuing to work with gaming authorities to make sure the guidance and practices are being followed.

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Representatives of all three operators told commissioners they will allow vaccinated patrons and employees to forgo face coverings but will still require — on an honor system — those who are unvaccinated to wear masks.

“We really are hoping that this is, again, a sustainable re-opening for you all and we wish you the very best and wish all the patrons and employees much health and safety,” commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein told the licensees shortly after the commission’s vote.

What casinos and the slots parlor are planning

Since the onset of the pandemic, the three facilities have operated under restrictions imposed by the commission. 

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Initially, craps, roulette, and poker were all nixed, drink service was limited to stationary guests in the gaming area, overall capacity limits were reduced, and plexiglass dividers separated players and dealers at Blackjack-style games beginning in June 2020 when each reopened after a three-month closure.

On Wednesday, the three licensees asked for a full return to pre-pandemic operations in the wake of Gov. Charlie Baker giving the green light to lift most restrictions in the state on May 29.

“This would mean opening up every slot machine, every gaming table, restoring our restaurants to previous occupancy, restoring the occupancy of the gaming floor,” said Jacqui Krum, senior vice president at Encore Boston Harbor.

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According to Krum, the casino’s nightclub, Memoire, plans to reopen in two phases: a soft re-opening on June 4 and 5 with a “relaxed lounge atmosphere” and a grand re-opening on July 11 through 13 with “star-studded talent.”

“Big Night Entertainment has operated a lot of nightclubs throughout Boston as well as in Connecticut,” Krum said. “They feel very confident that they can do this in a safe manner.”

Seth Stratton, vice president and general counsel of MGM Springfield, said his casino had similar plans.

“We echo her comments,” Stratton told commissioners. “We are very closely aligned both operationally [with] what we plan to do, as well as the request to have all COVID-related restrictions lifted.”

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Stratton also said the return to pre-pandemic commissions would be gradual.

“We’re looking for the ability to return at our discretion as business demand dictates to a pre-COVID environment,” he said. “We will of course follow CDC guidance, but as a customer amenity and addressing customer concerns, we will be keeping sanitizing wipes available, we will have masks available for those who are not vaccinated or are more comfortable wearing one should they not have one with them.”

Stratton added that MGM will also gradually phase-out plexiglass dividers, since some customers may be more comfortable with them in place for the time being.

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North Grounsell, general manager of Plainridge Park Casino, said temperature and health checks upon customer request will remain in place as will COVID disinfection protocols.

“All of this is subject to … the public health guidance,” Grounsell said. “We will continue to monitor and comply with all guidance and protocols issued by the CDC, the [state Department of Public Health], Board of Health and the host community, and the Baker-Polito Administration for dealing with COVID-19.”

Still uncertain for Encore and MGM is whether the two casinos will bring back poker.

Despite being legally able to under certain safety precautions, the two casinos suspended poker last year due to the fact that their abilities to turn a profit was hindered by the restrictions. On Wednesday, representatives of both casinos indicated they will assess the future of poker in each and touch base with the commission by Dec. 31.

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Even with the removal of occupancy restrictions, both Encore and MGM don’t expect to see a rush of players entering their casinos, either, they said.

“I’m not worried about us getting a surge of people,” Krum said. “We’re going to continue to monitor that to make sure that it’s safe….We also have a natural limit, which is our parking. As soon as that fills up, we close the garage and that happens long before, frankly, we get to an occupancy point where we’re even getting 50 percent of the total occupancy.”

Stratton said MGM operates similarly: “Once we hit the 40 and 50 percent capacities, that realistically was full capacity for us based on our amenities and slot machines. So we don’t anticipate materially more bodies coming in because folks are aware that the casino is currently open, and so that’s really customer-demand driven.”

What officials said

Commissioners said they were satisfied with the plans by the two casinos and the slots parlor presented Wednesday.

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“I think, the last 15 months-plus in terms of our staff, this commission, and the licensees working together and communicating is what enabled everyone to keep the doors open,” said Commissioner Eileen O’Brien. “And so I think that … if this turns, we know we can also reconvene on a dime and do what needs to be done to limit the exposure and the damage in respect to the establishments.

“But I think I’m satisfied with the thought process that’s gone into the reopening,” O’Brien said.

Gaming regulators and authorities also told the commission they have prepared in anticipation of re-opening and are ready to tackle a return to pre-COVID operations.

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“I think we’re in a good position to return towards that pre-pandemic phase and again we will address issues as they as they come up,” said Captain Brian Connors, commanding officer of the Massachusetts State Police’s Gaming Enforcement Unit.

Bruce Band, assistant director of the commission’s Investigations and Enforcement Bureau, said he has received “nothing but cooperation” from the licensees throughout the health crisis.

“I don’t see that stopping going forward,” Band said.

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