TORONTO -- Canadian gamblers are trading in cards and chips for temperature checks, hand sanitizer, face masks and disinfecting wipes.

As casinos across the country open, the gaming floor looks decidedly different. For the most part, table games are closed and there are fewer slot machines to choose. Reminders about physical distancing are scattered about on floors, walls, doors and around elevators.

Many amenities are closed. Forget valet service, buffets, live shows, spas and nightclubs. Casinos are built for escapism, but there is no escaping COVID-19.

Casinos are applying the same kind of cleaning discipline once reserved for washrooms to their entire site, using long-lasting antimicrobial sprays to disinfect surfaces, wiping down slot machines between each use, and providing disinfectant wipes and sanitizer throughout the gaming floor.

Many casinos are no longer open 24 hours, instead closing down for a few hours each morning to clean.

Plastic barriers are common at slots, gaming tables and food and beverage counters, and a number of casinos are employing technology to minimize the need for lines, including live count capacity monitors and apps that tell casino visitors when it’s their time to enter.

Those who enjoy casinos want to get back to the machines and tables after three or four months of dark gaming floors, says Paul Burns, CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association. But they understand the experience is going to be different, just like every other facet of public life.

“Where we’ve had reopenings, demand has been good. Customers do want to come back but they also want to know it’s safe. We have to get this right for customers.”

WHERE CASINOS ARE REOPENING

Alberta was the first province to reopen its casinos. It isn’t requiring masks, though strongly recommends them, and also hasn’t set capacity restrictions beyond requiring a two-metre distance.

Casinos in all the Atlantic provinces are allowed to reopen (except Newfoundland and Labrador, where they have been illegal for many years.) But some operators in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have yet to reopen.

Saskatchewan reopened its casinos last week and beginning Friday, casinos are permitted to reopen in the parts of Ontario that are entering Stage 3.

Quebec’s casinos will reopen over the next few weeks.

Manitoba and British Columbia have not reopened casinos. Health authorities in B.C. have included casinos in its Phase 4 plan, along with conventions, live professional sports, concerts and international tourism. That phase requires a vaccine, broad community immunity or successful treatments.

But casino operators are lobbying the provincial government to allow them to open their doors with approved health and safety plans.  

It’s a safe bet casinos are big business.

There were 114 casinos in Canada when pandemic measures closed every one of them in a 72-hour period in March. According to the Canadian Gaming Association, the gaming industry accounts for more than 182,000 jobs in this country, along with revenues to governments and charities of $9.2 billion and spending on goods and services of about $14.6 billion.

‘GNAWING IN MY STOMACH’

But how many gamblers are willing to wager on a casino outing?

Marcia Coward-Wilson used to visit a Vancouver Island casino at least once a week, sometimes more. Vacations with her partner were planned around trips to casinos and it wasn’t uncommon for the couple to make a day’s road trip to visit all six casinos on the island in one day.

But due to the pandemic, Coward-Wilson, 66, says she won’t see the inside of a casino for a very long time.

“I certainly will not be going back when they open,” she said from her home in Merville, B.C.

Coward-Wilson has an auto-immune disease and worries about crowds, recirculated air and all the touched surfaces inside a casino.

“And COVID is still an unknown. Every day, you hear something new about it.”

Coward-Wilson says she won’t risk being able to see her three-year-old granddaughter to visit a casino. And she doesn’t think it would be that much fun anyway, what will all the worrying about getting too close to people and what she’s touched.

“I get a gnawing in my stomach that tells me I don’t want to go near a casino anytime soon.”

But many have shown their eagerness to get back to the casino floor.

News reports documented a long line of people outside Casino Regina when the doors were opened for the first time in three months on July 9.

In just three hours, the casino reached its maximum capacity of 250.

Jason Agecoutay in Yorkton, Sask. says he and his spouse were among those at the casino a few days later. He said there were “some great protocols in place” and he will return soon, though he hopes to see more staff wiping down slots next time.

The casino’s visitors have to undergo a health screening at the door, but masks are optional. The casino has spaced out its slot machines and reduced its hours of operation to allow for more cleaning.

“Maybe the biggest thing that impressed me was that they had machines turned off so you are forced to social distance while playing,” he told CTVNews.ca by email. “Unlike other casinos where they just ask you to social distance and leave all the machines running, you can clearly see the focus is on patron protection and not on making money.”

SAFETY MEASURES

Many casinos have detailed their reopening plans or operating protocols on their websites.

The yet-to-be-reopened South Beach Casino in Scanterbury, Man. says it will have slot attendants offering disinfecting wipes to players, disinfecting machines at least once every two hours, and completing a log of each machine’s sanitization schedule.

Elevator capacity is capped at four people and buttons will be sanitized at least once an hour.

Casino de Montreal, which is reopening Aug. 3, will open six sections at a maximum of 250 people each.  Guests are asked to book their visit through a new RSVP system to get “priority access.”

Masks are mandatory, and visitors must sanitize their hands at the entrance and exit and when arriving and leaving tables. Casino-goers will be supplied with a stylus pen so they can avoid touching devices.

Slots are either spaced out or divided with plastic barriers, machines are only activated by an attendant if they’ve been disinfected and physical distancing is in place.

The casino will not operate valet service or coat check and even urinals are closed due to physical distancing.

Some table games have been modified so that only dealers handle chips and those that require players to touch cards, such as poker, will be closed. Players will be separated from each other and from the dealer by a plastic screen.

Quebec casinos will be the first to offer table games in Canada under COVID-19 restrictions. In some cases, health authorities have prohibited them, but in others, casino operators have determined they can’t make a go of running them under physical distancing measures when only two or three players can sit at a table, says Burns at the Canadian Gaming Association.

Other operators are installing barriers on the tables and will open them down the road.

NOT ECONOMICALLY FEASIBLE IN ONTARIO

Many of Ontario’s casinos can reopen Friday, when much of the province enters Stage 3 of reopening. That excludes the Golden Horseshoe and Windsor-Essex, which will remain in Stage 2.

Under provincial guidelines, Ontario’s casinos cannot operate table games or buffets, must require face masks for customers, and must submit a reopening plan to the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario, which regulates casinos.

In the new phase, Ontario is increasing its indoor capacity limit to 50 people, and while Burns says he understands where health authorities are coming from, it’s not an economically feasible number for casinos.

“At 50 people, there is not a casino that will reopen.”

Gateway Casinos, which operates 12 sites across Ontario, has announced it won’t open any of its casinos Friday and has no timeline for doing so. Great Canadian Gaming Corporation’s website does not include any reopening information for any of its 13 sites in Ontario.

Burns says the industry is continuing to work with the province and the regulator to demonstrate “our operators are prepared to bring in limits that are responsible and safe.”

He says the province’s casinos have developed “very detailed and robust plans” to reopen that are being reviewed by public health experts before submission to the province. Burns points out that casinos already have surveillance systems that will make it easy to monitor the movement of people and to deal with people who are congregating.

Many of Ontario’s casino operators have sites in other jurisdictions where they have been allowed to open in compliance with public health guidelines. That direct experience, along with studying what is being done around the world, will only help the reopening process in Canada’s most populous province, says Burns.

But there are many moving parts, including new training of staff, getting buildings ready with signs and a newly spaced out gaming floor, figuring out how to deliver various games, and preparing adjacent amenities to reopen, including restaurants, hotels and salons.

“There is a great deal of experience and dedication going into this process,” he told CTV News from Toronto. “No one is going to rush to reopen.”

And certainly no one wants to reopen, only to close again for an outbreak.

THE ALBERTA EXPERIENCE

The five Alberta casinos owned by Century Casinos reopened June 13 and are operating at roughly 40 per cent of pre-COVID-19 capacity, said Geoff Smith, senior vice-president of operations.

With some “well-designed Plexiglass barriers” in place, about 50 per cent of the slot machines are open. In some cases, slots have been spread out to allow two-metre separation, in other cases, some have simply been turned off.

Employees are wearing masks at all Century casinos and they are required for visitors at three sites, Smith told CTVNews.ca from Edmonton. He says masks are “highly encouraged” at the other two sites and required when two metres of distance isn’t possible.

“I’d say, all together at all our casinos a high percentage are wearing them – north of 80 per cent.”

Casino visitors go through a wellness check and have their temperatures taken if there is any reason for concern, says Smith. Employees’ temperatures are taken every day before they enter the premises. Century implemented an ambassador job for management-level employees whose sole responsibility is to ensure COVID-19 measures are followed.

Smith says the “optics of the experience” are crucial, so that customers feel safe. A large portion of the casino’s normal clientele are 55-plus and some of that crowd hasn’t returned, he says. But at times, especially just after reopening, there were some lines on the weekends.

Live entertainment isn’t happening and Century Casinos are shifting their large promotional draws online beginning in August, says Smith. But restaurants are open and so is a comedy club at Century Casino Edmonton, with an occupancy limit of 100, and horse-racing tracks with up to 200 spectators.

“I think we can still provide the fun and entertainment people want but in a secure, responsible way. The close proximity and mingling of crowds has stopped, and who knows for how long.”

There is no indication from the province when table games will be permitted, but when poker and blackjack and the like is allowed again, River Cree Resort and Casino in Enoch, Alta. will be ready, says marketing director Jayme Behm.

The casino has already sourced specially-designed dividers to separate players from each other and from the dealer and has bought a chip sanitizer that looks like a big washing machine, says Behm. Each time trays of chips come to the cash cage, they will get a spin through the sanitizer.

River Cree, which is owned and operated by the Cree Nation just outside Edmonton, used its time during shutdown to install plastic barriers between each of its 1,350 slot machines, allowing each one to stay in operation.

Masks are not mandated at River Cree, except for employees who work in close quarters and for servers and bartenders. And guests are not undergoing health screenings to enter.

But the casino is providing complimentary masks, hand sanitizers and wipes (the latter in bright yellow canisters), and has a designated “extreme clean team” circulating the floor to wipe down surfaces. There is a hotline number patrons can call if anything needs attention or to report physical distancing violations or someone possibly displaying COVID-19 symptoms.

The casino also has real-time capacity scanners at every entrance, which indicate how many guests are in each of two casinos (a smaller one allows smoking). That allows managers to make “proactive and informed decisions” about capping capacity when it seems physical distancing can’t be maintained, says Behm.

The casino is exploring cashless and other no-touch technology and has already replaced the tradition of “hand pays” for slots jackpots, where winners had bills counted into their hands at the machine, with a credit slip paid out at the cash cage.

Head counts and traffic are definitely down over last year, says Behm, but that’s not surprising given live entertainment and big giveaways of jackpots and cars that bring crowds are all on ice for now.

The fear of the virus is certainly a factor, too.

“Some people are comfortable with going out and some people are not, whether that’s the grocery store, the casino or their uncle’s house. Some are not willing to come back yet.”

THIS VIRUS LOVES THE INDOORS

Raywat Deonandan, an epidemiologist and associate professor at the University of Ottawa, says he’s not generally a casino goer, but if he was, he wouldn’t be going right now.

“This virus loves indoor clustering of people and casinos are set up to gather people around slots and gaming tables,” he said.

Standing around with strangers, whether that’s in lines, around slots and tables or in bars or restaurants, poses a danger. The risk is amplified the closer people are and the longer they stay close. 

“The second wave will be triggered by a super-spreading event and that’s going to be some sort of indoor mass gathering, whether that’s a church, a bar, a casino or a concert.”

He says Canada continues to ride a delicate balance between opening its economy and letting people live their lives, while controlling virus numbers.

“So that means looking at what’s really necessary and what’s a luxury,” he said. Schools, stores and factories could be seen as necessities, while things like bars, casinos and movie theatres are luxuries.

He acknowledges casinos in particular are big employers and even bigger generators of revenue for governments, but the risk is evident, he said.

It’s possible to minimize the threat, but it does take effort, time and resources, said Deonandan. The key is to keep the number of people inside a casino small and spread out. And he says masks should be mandatory for everyone at all times.

“That’s just not something you can get around.”

Employees should be doubly protected – with masks to handle outward transmission and visors to protect against inward transmission. 

As for temperature checks, the professor thinks they may catch a few carriers of the virus, but fevers can easily be suppressed with over-the-counter medications and those who are infected but are asymptomatic or haven’t developed symptoms yet won’t be flagged by a thermometer.

It’s more important, he says, that casinos offer plenty of hand washing and sanitizing stations, along with strong messaging about hygiene, physical distancing, and not touching the face. And while the risk of surface transmission is believed to be low, it’s still important to properly and frequently disinfect the things that people touch.

Casinos also must invest in maintaining and upgrading air filtration systems and to ensure air is always moving, says Deonandan.

Surveillance and enforcement, something casinos are already adept at, are going to be critical to maintain physical distancing, says the professor. It will change the casino experience for many and maybe improve it for some.

“It’s really about what motivates someone to be in a casino. Are you there to socialize or to sit by yourself and gamble at a slot machine?” he said. In some cases, pandemic measures may boost the comfort level. Instead of jockeying for a spot at a craps table or sitting elbow-to-elbow playing poker, Deonandan says barriers to keep people apart could be made to feel like individual, spacious booths.

“Casinos have the resources and the motivation to get it right. They are motivated to get people in and keep them in, so people have to feel safe.”

SOUTH OF THE BORDER

The reality of the coronavirus has even hit home in Sin City.

Las Vegas, which opened its famed casino strip on June 4 to headlines about larger-than-expected crowds ignoring physical distancing and hardly a mask in sight, has now seen the majority of its operators institute mandatory temperature checks and masks for guests and employees. 

Dice are splashed with sanitizer after every throw and dealers stand behind plastic shields. There are also plastic barriers between every two seats at bars.

But New Jersey took it a step further, deciding to ban alcohol (or drinks of any kind), eating and smoking in its nine casinos in Atlantic City, while limiting capacity to 25 per cent.

Many casinos in New York state are going the same route. Gamblers can only get water and non-alcoholic drinks at Oneida Nations Enterprises’ three casinos and must drink them from a straw with their masks in place. It is also among a number of the state’s casinos limiting entry to those who live within 160 kilometres. And if you live in 19 U.S. states that have elevated levels of COVID-19, you’ll be turned away.

The entry procedure, included in the casinos’ 25-page reopening plan, includes swiping ID to prove you’re not from a restricted state, lowering a face covering for three seconds to be visually checked, putting the mask back, and grabbing hand sanitizer.

Kewadin Casino in Michigan is recommending that those with “compromised immunity or vulnerabilities not visit,” and is prohibiting any congregating around slots. Mystic Lake casino in Prior Lake, Minn. is taking temperatures, limiting on-site smoking and providing an on-site health clinic for staff.

An anti-smoking group in the United States says about 170 casinos have gone smoke-free in the wake of COVID-19. 

A TOUCHLESS CASINO

Some of the changes COVID-19 has wrought could be here to stay, says Burns at the CGA, but that likely depends on how long the virus poses a threat. What is for sure is that the pandemic is forcing innovation in a way few things could.

Long a bastion of cash, this pandemic, and the resulting reluctance or downright fear of handing bills, could push the casino industry to embrace digital payment options. Few casinos allow for contactless or  mobile payments and many regulators don’t allow it. But the feeling is that the coronavirus will accelerate the conversation.

The CGA has been working on plans for going cashless for more than a year, says Burns. It recently released a technical proposal for the adoption of debit or cards or digital apps, such as Apple Pay, Google Pay, and PayPal and is now collecting industry feedback.

“We started looking into it last year but the pandemic has had a way of escalating timelines,” he said. “It’s not going to happen immediately, but these tools will find their way to the gaming floors in the coming months.”

The American Gaming Association in June found that 57 per cent of people who visited a casino in the past year said the option to use digital payments on the casino floor is important to them and 59 per cent said they are less likely to use cash because of COVID-19.

The trade group said alternatives should be available to anyone uneasy about using cash. And it said that limit setting within digital platforms – both in terms of dollars and time spent playing – could encourage people to gamble responsibly.

And innovation could ultimately lead to a fully touchless slot experience. Las Vegas-based Scientific Games has developed a mobile wallet and app that connects by Bluetooth to a slot machine. The player operates the machine from their phone and if they win, the money can go right back to their bank account or be turned into casino credits.

The company has also created a platform that notifies floor staff when a player leaves a machine so that it can be sanitized and tells a player through an app how recently a device was cleaned. When a player connects, the machines on either side become inoperable to maintain physical distancing.