In less than 48 hours, slot machines can light up, cards can fly and dice can roll inside Nevada casinos again.
The unprecedented closure put the gaming industry on pause for more than two months. But it was far from an idle time for gaming companies or regulators. The fast-spreading COVID-19 virus triggered an overhaul of casino properties to keep both employees and guests safe.
The Gaming Control Board, which is the agency that regulates the state’s massive gaming industry, debuted health and safety policies last month. Since then, companies have been busy submitting plans for how their properties will abide by the new standards. And, as casinos reopen their doors, those plans will transition from paper to practice.
Sandra Douglass Morgan, the chair of the Gaming Control Board, discussed everything from the coming changes to compliance efforts during a recent interview with The Nevada Independent. The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.
How many companies have submitted reopening plans? And what does the approval process look like?
I'm comfortable saying a majority of the plans have been submitted. However, because of the workshop, we're still receiving some addendums … So we will review it all. If we have any issues, we will contact the licensee. If they do not address the issue, they will not be able to reopen.
Once casinos and resort properties reopen, how does the Gaming Control Board go about monitoring compliance? And does the agency have the staff to do so?
The health and safety guidelines aren't something that would be, dare I say, typical for gaming regulators, but obviously this is very important because it is a public health issue, and we are tasked with ensuring that health and safety of all Nevadans is at the forefront of what we're doing. And so although traditionally and historically it has been more about people cheating the game and ensuring people have equal access to gaming, this is a different focus, but it’s still within our mandate.
To answer your question, yes, I would love more people, but we're definitely doing the best with what we have. And the initial plans will be reviewed based on what has been submitted on paper … and we do of course have a plan to address ongoing compliance items that we will be able to do once they reopen. We physically can't review all the properties because we're not open yet, right? So to be able to test against the plan that's being submitted, we will be doing that on an ongoing basis after they reopen.
(Douglass Morgan said the Gaming Control Board’s enforcement division has about 110 staff members.)
What can guests or patrons do if they suspect a property isn’t compliant?
They can always contact the Gaming Control Board. That’s what we’ve been getting even during the closure, right? Either potential allegations of maybe a device being on or, prior to restaurants being allowed to open, people seeing too many cars in a parking lot when they shouldn’t have any operations. We are frequently contacted by persons who believe or may just suspect that maybe there’s some activity going on that isn’t proper.
If the Gaming Control Board determines a licensee isn’t compliant, what are the next steps?
In Governor Sisolak’s latest directive, he was very explicit in stating that the Gaming Control Board is authorized to enforce his directive — the actual Directive 21 with regard to reopening — as necessary. And it includes without limitation pursuing disciplinary action to limit, condition, suspend or revoke a gaming license or impose a monetary fine.
Even with the industry notices that we've issued that clearly guide licensees on what we expect, the explicit directive — allowing the Gaming Control Board to enforce these — will definitely give us more teeth with regards to compliance.
I'm confident that they understand the severity of this and that they will comply. However, we also have a task to enforce strict gaming regulation to allow the industry to be able to operate. They know our standards. We’ve been answering questions nonstop … We've tried to be as transparent as possible and as consistent as possible.
What happens if a guest or patron has a temperature above 100.4 degrees or several symptoms associated with COVID-19 but refuses further medical screening or treatment?
No one can be forced to take a test, and I can't expect a gaining licensee to force someone to take a COVID test. The goal of these health and safety policies is to ensure that there are mechanisms in place, there are procedures in place if a guest does fall ill and they potentially do have COVID or they want to have a COVID test.
So what happens if a guest at one of these properties does fall ill and test positive for COVID-19?
That’s up to the business. The business could say, “Look, we do have some health concerns here, but we know that UMC (University Medical Center) and the Southern Nevada Health District have already identified certain areas where you can stay so you don't have to be forced out,” or that property may say, “You know, you are fine if you choose to stay here. You can stay here but may be limited to your room and limit interactions with our employees.”
For several days, protests related to the police killing of George Floyd in Minnesota have occurred in cities across the nation, including Las Vegas and Reno. Could the ongoing unrest affect the casino reopening date?
At this time, I don't believe so. I am certainly heartbroken about the unfortunate violent killings that we've seen on television that have been played over and over again, not just for Mr. Floyd and his family, but also for Mr. Arbery at the hands of a private citizen. There's definitely a lot of pain and I think there needs to be a broader discussion — not only with law enforcement but with our leaders as well.
When we talk about COVID, we closed all these properties and the state because we’re concerned about the value of life and the death toll the virus is taking. But there are also lives being taken as well unlawfully. So I definitely feel for the protesters and just hope and, honestly, on a personal note, just pray that they’re peaceful and ensuring that the message they want to convey is actually delivered and not being overshadowed by violence.
For people considering a trip here or even locals wondering whether they should spend a night out at a casino, what’s your message to them?
Although it's going to feel and maybe look a little different, these unprecedented measures were needed during these difficult times. But we're confident that at least the policies and the plans that have been put in place are very sound and are a safe way to welcome back employees and guests.
I would tell the patron who's considering coming back to Las Vegas or just to Nevada in general to do their part in ensuring that we can continue to reopen. This is just the first phase for gaming … Be responsible. Be respectful of the rules that we’ve put in place. Be respectful of the rules that the gaming licensees are going to be encouraging patrons to follow when they come back. It'll still be, I think, a great experience. It'll just be a little different.
Do you anticipate these health and safety policies being in place in perpetuity?
These policies flow from the governor's directives, which were as a result of the declaration of emergency. And so while that declaration of emergency is still in place and we still have restrictions — whether they be for phases or occupancy — these policies will still exist. As things hopefully progress and get better, we can definitely find a time or a way to either scale back some of these or maybe get to a point where we rescind all of them. But, for now, while the declaration of emergency is in place, these health and safety policies will be in place as well.
Anything else you want to add as Nevada casinos inch closer to reopening?
There is no exact playbook for this, but it's a good feeling to know that so many people are working together to understand that when we do this and we reopen, it has to be done right. It won't be seamless. There will definitely be hiccups, but we're all working together towards the same goal of ensuring that we're mitigating the spread of COVID in the state as we start to welcome people back.