Pandemic Chronicles: Players return to Reno

Casinos have precautions in place, but some patrons seem unconcerned

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Downtown Reno, nearly deserted for 78 days, reawakens

By Frank X. Mullen

Gamblers are returning to Reno’s slot machines and gaming tables, but slowly. Some are worried about safety; some don’t seem to have a care in the world.

The second weekend of reopening after a 78-day shutdown due to COVID saw an uptick in business, according to anecdotal reports of employees at downtown Reno stores and gaming properties. Official tallies of visitors haven’t yet been released, but observations downtown over the course of both weekends showed the streets and the casino floors were more crowded June 13 and 14 than a week earlier. “It’s actually a lot better than anyone expected,” said a worker at the Eldorado Resort Casino, who did not want to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters. Other downtown workers agreed.

The Eldorado, Silver Legacy Resort Casino and Circus Circus – the three properties known as the ROW and owned by Eldorado Resorts – have taken extensive safety measures to deal with COVID. There are signs everywhere reminding people to practice social distancing, employees sanitize gaming stations once a player leaves a seat, all employees wear face masks and some wear transparent face shields, and players use hand sanitizer as soon as they are seated. Access to the three ROW properties is limited to the doors at the Eldorado’s valet parking entrance or the parking garage. But it’s not a foolproof system.

“It’s a matter of timing,” said Gary Shafer of Auburn, Calif., who waited just outside a Virginia Street door of the Eldorado with his father, Allan, who uses a scooter. Although entry is now limited, fire codes prohibit the other casino doors from being locked to people who want to exit the building. As soon as a couple came out, Shafer asked them to hold the door and he and his father went inside the casino. On Saturday and Sunday, several other patrons were observed taking advantage of the loophole. Casino management’s enthusiasm for other safety precautions didn’t seem to be shared by a lot of customers, either.

Michael Ireton from Santa Rosa, Calif., wore a face mask as he walked on Virginia Street Saturday afternoon, but he was far outnumbered by people who strolled without face protection. “I was shocked at the number of customers in the Eldorado not wearing masks, maybe 80 percent. People running around in packs of eight or 10, just like they never heard of the virus. They act like it’s four months ago. All the workers had masks, but the customers are putting them at risk and they don’t seem to get that,” he said. He said he drove four hours to spend the weekend in Reno. “I was cooped up so long I just had to get out. I’m a big casino fan and I’ve got player’s cards at some of them.” Ireton, who has been able to work from home during the lockdown, said he’d like to get to Las Vegas but didn’t want to fly. “But I love Reno, too. I come here for Hot August Nights.”

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Michael Ireton of Santa Rosa, Calif., came to Reno to take a break from work

Ireton’s estimate of the mask:no-mask ratio held true as observed during walks among the three properties Sunday. Players bunched up around gaming areas and the wide avenues between the casinos. Craps tables had their usual loud action, with players tightly spaced and yelling encouragement (or registering disappointment) with each throw of the dice. At Circus Circus, families crowded in the Midway, where children yanked levers, tossed game pieces at targets or punched the buttons of arcade games to win stuffed animals and other prizes. Employees moved quickly to wipe contact areas with sanitizer as each player moved to another contest.

Bars in the gaming areas were roped off and some of the casino restaurants were closed, but the cafes, bars and restaurants that remained open had their tables spaced more than six feet apart. On the street, the markets and downtown’s few remaining gift shops had signs announcing what steps they have taken to sanitize everything inside.

PHOTO/FRANK X. MULLEN: Businesses along Virginia Street want patrons to know they’ve been careful

One man walking down Virginia Street without a mask Sunday afternoon challenged any mask-wearing passersby about their decisions to sport face coverings: “Why are you wearing that?” he demanded. “There’s no need. Take that off! You are fear-mongering!” Most of the people he addressed ignored him. The man’s lone companion rolled his eyes and shrugged each time his friend went through his routine. A woman who walked past the yelling man eventually turned around and offered a retort: “I’m wearing this because I don’t want to see you wearing a ventilator,” she said. The maskless man, who appeared to be intoxicated, laughed and went on his way.

Ed Lake of Sacramento stood smoking a cigarette on Virginia Street under the Reno Arch Sunday afternoon. He had a soiled blue paper surgical mask draped around his neck. “I really don’t think (masks) do much,” he said. “But my wife wants me to wear one, so I’m not going to fight over it.” He said he thinks the pandemic has run its course “maybe until a second wave in the fall.” Because he is 37 years old, he said he doesn’t believe he is at a high risk for a bad case of the illness.  Lake said he became less concerned about the pandemic once the Black Lives Matter protests began dominating the news about three weeks ago. “All of a sudden it wasn’t a big deal anymore, so it looked like a lot of hype,” he said. The more than 115,000 COVID deaths so far in the U.S. — the highest in the world — were people who were “already very old” or very sick, he said.

Some epidemiologists have said the nation may still be in the first wave of the pandemic and warned that many states may have opened up their economies too soon. Other Western states are weathering new outbreaks of the virus. Utah and Oregon put more extensive reopening of their economies on hold Saturday, but Arizona, Texas and Arkansas are moving forward with their next phases, according to the Associated Press. Nevada passed the 10,000-case mark last week and the state experienced six consecutive days of an increase in the number of patients requiring hospitalization. Health officials said the upward trend in the Silver State may be partially due to greater accessibility to testing statewide, but they are closely monitoring the testing and hospital data. For the tourists interviewed in downtown Reno, COVID was either a continuing cause for concern or something that was fading in a rear-view mirror.

“We’re being careful, careful, careful,” said Sally Lim of Davis, Calif., who came to Reno with two friends for three days of gaming. “We’re sticking with the slots and not doing the (table games) or eating in restaurants unless we can sit outdoors.” She said she and her friends wear masks indoors and keep them at the ready when they walk past people on the street. One of her companions is a nurse, Lim noted, and “we hear it from her all the time. This is serious. This is not the flu and nobody gets a pass.”  She said she also is worried about the apparent lack of concern she sees among casino customers.

 “We’ll see what happens in a week or two,” Lim said. “I guess we’re all guinea pigs now.”

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