After about 440 days of being closed or operating under restrictions meant to stop the spread of COVID-19, the state's slots parlor and two resort casinos will be allowed to return to mostly normal pre-pandemic operations this weekend.
"I wish you great luck over the course of this big weekend. Most of all, we can all pause and reflect on the losses that occurred the last 15 months. They've been enormous across the country, around the world and here in Massachusetts," Massachusetts Gaming Commission Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein said Wednesday after the commission voted 4-0 to remove its remaining COVID-19 restrictions on casinos and the slots parlor. "We really are hoping that this is, again, a sustainable re-reopening for you all and we wish you the very best and wish all the patrons and employees much health and safety."
Gov. Charlie Baker is lifting nearly all COVID-19 business restrictions effective Saturday, but the gaming areas at Plainridge Park Casino, MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor are under the purview of the commission, which met Wednesday to hear each property's plan for a full reopening and to decide how to unwind its restrictions.
Representatives from each facility told the commission they want to return to pre-pandemic operations as the governor lifts COVID-19 restrictions this weekend, subject to their ability to meet gambler demand.
"This would mean opening up every slot machine, every gaming table, restoring our restaurants to previous occupancy, restoring the occupancy of the gaming floor," Jacqui Krum, senior vice president at Encore Boston Harbor, said. She added, "We would allow fully vaccinated guests to not wear a mask, and we will continue to make complimentary masks available for guests to use."
Seth Stratton, vice president and general counsel of MGM Springfield, told commissioners after Krum's presentation, "We're just going to say 'me too' generally to what Jacqui said. We echo her comments."
"We're looking for an ability to return, at our discretion and as business dictates, to a pre-COVID environment," he said. Stratton added, "We are looking for flexibility to phase out COVID-related restrictions as we deem fit consistent with state and federal guidance, but we are not looking to eliminate every COVID-related mitigation strategy as of the 29th. That'll be a gradual process and we will of course keep the commission apprised of how that's going."
Plainridge Park General Manager North Grounsell said the Plainville slots parlor wants "to be able to conduct any activity that is permissible by law and regulations for which the business demand is present and that we have the team members available to meet those first two requirements."
A return to pre-pandemic operations for the three gaming centers means a return to standard occupancy levels, the rebooting of all slot machines, table games with full complements of player seats, the removal of most plexiglass barriers and allowing fully vaccinated gamblers to go mask-free. It also means a return to pre-pandemic cocktail service and guests will no longer have to be seated to be served a beverage.
Though the commission voted to lift its restrictions as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday, all three facilities said the changes will not take effect with the flip of a switch. Plainridge said it aims to start operating under the new landscape at 9 a.m. Saturday, and MGM and Encore said they likely will not take full advantage of the new allowances right away. For instance, both casinos said they probably won't open gaming area bars right at 12:01 a.m.
"We were thinking of potentially walking around with champagne," Krum said. "I think there is a great deal of excitement so certainly not a full 'every restaurant is open and the bars are a go,' but some little bit of celebration around 12:01."
Each licensee on Wednesday presented the commission with its plan for returning to pre-pandemic operations and explained how it will communicate with guests about what to expect. All three facilities said they will continue to adhere to all U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Mass. Department of Public Health and local health department guidelines and rules, and will continue to report any positive COVID-19 cases to the commission.
Before the commissioners voted to lift their restrictions subject to adherence to the plans presented Wednesday, they said they felt comfortable with what each facility had presented.
"I'm generally satisfied with relaxing the restrictions at the casinos," Commissioner Enrique Zuniga said. "I think that the plans are very appropriate."
Commissioner Eileen O'Brien agreed and reminded the licensees that the commission can reimpose restrictions if the public health situation warrants that.
"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," she said and added, "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 at the respective establishments. But I think I'm satisfied with the thought process that's gone into the reopening."
The commission oversaw the closure of the state's gaming centers in mid-March, initially for a two-week period and eventually through all of April, May and June. Since mid-July, the three gambling halls, the two casino hotels and the various retail offerings at the properties operated under commission and state restrictions that capped capacity, limited what games could be offered, and took some of the glitz out of gambling.
"Collectively, Massachusetts casinos lost an estimated 32 percent of total operating days in 2020 due to the pandemic," the American Gaming Association reported earlier this month.
Though they both said they intend to resume normal pre-pandemic operations, neither Encore nor MGM Springfield would commit Wednesday to bring back poker.
The casinos said poker would not have been profitable for them with only four players allowed at a table under the commission's rules. But with the commission's limit on the number of players at a table slated to be lifted Saturday, officials from each facility said they will assess the future of poker and will announce a decision on whether to bring it back by the end of 2021.
"We're continuing to monitor needs for poker and whether we will bring that back," MGM Springfield Compliance Director Daniel Miller said. "We too have decided to make a decision by or around December 31."
With gaming and hospitality opportunities set to expand at the casinos and slots parlor, gaming agents and investigators will have more territory to cover. Captain Brian Connors, commanding officer of the Mass. State Police's Gaming Enforcement Unit, said his team will be ready for the changes coming to casinos this weekend.
"We've anticipated this major step toward reopening for quite some time now ... we're in a very good position," he said. "I don't have any major concerns."