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Maine Casinos To Reopen After State Agrees To Coronavirus Safety Plan

Robert F. Bukaty
Associated Press/file
A dealer slides chips across the blackjack table at the Hollywood Casino, Friday, March 16, 2012, in Bangor, Maine.

They’ve been closed for months because of the pandemic, but this week Maine’s two casinos will be allowed to reopen after state officials agreed to a pandemic safety plan that will limit capacity to 200 people.

With gatherings still limited to 50 people, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Sauschuck says the biggest challenge was figuring out how the casinos could safely operate and still generate revenue. So, Saushuck says main halls will be split into four separate zones, each with a 50-person capacity.

“That was big change and a big move that really allowed the casinos to be viable. With a location that big it would be difficult if it was just 50 people,” he says.

Sauschuck says requirements include face-coverings for customers and dealers and six-foot social distancing at table games and slot machines. He notes that casinos are highly controlled environments, with strong HVAC systems and remote-controlled slot machines.

“Technology wise, we can actually shut off games, so we can work with them to provide social distance because we do have a central monitoring system,” he says.

Credit Susan Sharon / Maine Public
Maine Public
The interior of the Oxford Casino, seen March 29, 2013.

Hollywood Casino is owned by Penn National Gaming, whose officials declined comment about reopening. But the Bangor casino’s website says it plans to reopen this Friday.

Oxford Casino General Manager Jack Sours says owner Churchill Downs hopes to set a reopening date soon. Sours anticipates bringing more than 100 workers back, and he’s hopeful the state will allow increased capacity once the facility proves it can manage expansion safely.

But, for now, Sours says this is how the casino’s four quadrants will work:

“We’ll have four 50-person quadrants for a total of 200 guests that could be in the building at one time. And we’ll manage those quadrants independently, so as the guest goes through the casino they’ll have to come to a checkpoint, and then we’ll say, ‘Yes you can go into that one, there’s availability,’ or ‘No this one’s full, you’ll have to go to the next quadrant to find a game,’” he says.

Together the casinos employ almost 800 people. They also provide a cascade of monthly payments to various interests designated by state law, including tens of millions of dollars a year for the state’s general fund and education department, several million for the state’s tribes, millions for the harness racing industry and many smaller recipients.

The spigot slowed to a trickle in March and ran dry in April.

“We budgeted approximately $2 million in revenues from the cascade, and of course we fell short of that by nearly $500,000,” says Oxford Town Manager Butch Asselin.

Asselin says the casino supports roughly 15 percent of the town’s budget.

“So this [the reopening] is good news. Even though it is limited to 200 people, the casino generally sees up to 2 million people a year. So it’s a good start,” he says.

Other large indoor entertainment venues are still being limited to a 50-person capacity under the governor’s reopening guidelines. They are likely to be closely scrutinizing the checklist the state negotiated with the casinos.

Originally published at 12:31 p.m. ET, July 6, 2020.

A Columbia University graduate, Fred began his journalism career as a print reporter in Vermont, then came to Maine Public in 2001 as its political reporter, as well as serving as a host for a variety of Maine Public Radio and Maine Public Television programs. Fred later went on to become news director for New England Public Radio in Western Massachusetts and worked as a freelancer for National Public Radio and a number of regional public radio stations, including WBUR in Boston and NHPR in New Hampshire.