Gamblers flock to Harrah’s casino in Chester after 100 days of closure

Bob Mills of Wenonah, N.J., places a bet at Harrah's Philadelphia, attended by showgirls Vanessa Harkins and Angel Simpkins. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Bob Mills of Wenonah, N.J., places a bet at Harrah's Philadelphia, attended by showgirls Vanessa Harkins and Angel Simpkins. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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“YES!” shouted Bob Mills.

The roulette wheel had been kind to him. Mills raked in $420 in thin plastic chips, and his mood was generous: He tipped the dealer, gave out Tootsie Rolls, and handed a neat stack of chips to a passing cocktail waitress who had given him a number that paid out.

Mills was exactly where he wanted to be: back on the casino floor.

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“I used to come here four days a week,” he said. But since the state ordered casinos to shut down in March to prevent coronavirus spread, he’s had no comparable outlet. He’s subsisted on low-stakes online poker games, “just for some action.”

That both he and the dealer had half their faces hidden under protective masks did not faze Mills, one of hundreds of people who streamed into Harrah’s Philadelphia in the hour after it reopened its doors Friday morning in Chester.

Casinos across Pennsylvania have been reopening this month, and all but one are set to resume operations by next week. But just because the gambling halls are open doesn’t mean they’re operating like they used to.

“It’s a new normal,” said Vanessa Harkins, an entertainer on hand wearing glittering high heels, a shimmering two-piece costume, a feather crown, and a bejeweled protective face mask.

It’s a relief to be back at work, Harkins said, even though she feels apprehensive about the health risks.

Harrah’s Philadelphia General Manager Chris Albrecht speaks at the reopening of Harrah’s Philadelphia casino in Chester. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

To protect customers and staff from transmitting the coronavirus, a number of social distancing and disinfection measures are in place inside Harrah’s Philadelphia and other casinos. At Harrah’s, the facility is operating at 50% capacity; every other slot machine is closed off, to keep people spaced out; only three players are permitted at a time per blackjack table, four per roulette wheel, and six at a craps table, though that doesn’t include dealers. On-site dining, including Guy Fieri’s Philly Kitchen and Bar, will have reduced hours and seating.

No guests are allowed to crowd behind players. (Friday morning, a group of men craned their necks from several feet away for a look at the action at a busy craps table.) The poker room is closed down. And “high-touch gaming items” like dice, chips, and cards will be “refreshed more often,” according to guidance from Caesars Entertainment, the company that operates Harrah’s Philadelphia.

Each guest, staff member, and vendor walking onto the casino floor passes through a temperature check station. Not long after 10 a.m. Friday, with Harrah’s only reopened for an hour, a socially distant queue of customers waited to pass by the contactless thermometer machine.

Pent-up demand

“It’s a lotta people,” said Jordan Cleveland, a card dealer at a Spanish 21 table. “When they first opened the doors, people were running in here.”

Cleveland didn’t expect so many people to show up, believing there would be more concern about getting sick from the virus. But she understands the pent-up demand for activities to puncture the monotony of isolating lockdowns and business closures.

“They’ve been in the house for so long. Only certain stores were open. Like, I know I got tired of going to Walmart,” Cleveland said, and laughed. “People just wanna get out of the house, do something different, have some entertainment.”

Last month, Pennsylvania’s Gaming Control Board released a 10-page document outlining minimum standards facilities would need to meet in order to reopen. Union officials say they have pushed Harrah’s parent company to better protect workers from the virus.

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UNITE HERE Local 54 represents around 500 employees at Harrah’s Philadelphia, according to Donna DiCaprio, the union’s financial secretary and treasure.

“We don’t want this turning into the meatpacking industry. And we don’t want to see what happened in Las Vegas happen here,” DiCaprio said of operations that could put workers and guests at risk.

A scanning device (left) registers the temperature of each guest who enters the gambling floor at Harrah’s Philadelphia. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

In Clark County, Nevada, home to Las Vegas, COVID-19 cases spiked two weeks after casinos reopened with what union leaders say were inadequate safety measures on gaming floors.

Local 54 has been in negotiations with Caesars to increase worker safety protections, like mandatory health screenings, protective gear, and 10 days of “COVID pay” if an employee or their family member falls ill. DiCaprio believes those and other measures have made employees feel more comfortable, though some issues remain unresolved.

DiCaprio also wants for Caesars to step up when it comes to health care. The union has been covering medical insurance expenses for workers while they have been out of work the last several months, but now those reserves are depleted, and DiCaprio wants to see the company to do more for its employees.

“Caesars is sitting on a pile of cash,” she said.

For Belva Wilson, the extra space from social distancing and improved cleanliness was a nice improvement.

“If you come real early like this, it’s not crowded,” said Wilson, perched alone at a bank of video slot machines.

Belva Wilson of Folsom, Pa., uses a slot machine at Harrah’s Philadelphia, where seating has been rearranged to allow for social distancing. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

She hoped that after gaming had been shut down for so long, she might stand a better shot of a decent payout.

“But so far, I haven’t won a thing,” she said.

Wilson has some health concerns about being inside an enclosed space with hundreds of other people, though after months spent hunkering down out of state, she said it feels good to have a little fun doing something familiar and exciting. But while she used to come to Harrah’s a few times a week, she expects to cut back given the public health situation.

“I’m not sure I’ll be coming as often,” Wilson said. “Unless it picks up with the winnings.”

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