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Eyeing Guidelines, Arizona Casinos Prepare For May Reopening

Casino del Sol's pool and water slide, just opened in Summer 2019.

As Gov. Doug Ducey announced an easing of the current stay-at-home orders beginning May 15, casinos across Arizona are starting to begin the final stages of reopening.

With the first reopening planned for May 15, most of the current dates are scattered across the month of May, into early June and possibly beyond, as the industry tries to adapt to a new, post-coronavirus reality. Keeping patrons safe has changed many things, owners and operators told Bisnow.

“The hotel will remain closed, but we are opening the casino tentatively on May 15, and we will adjust accordingly to further directions given by the governor,” Fort McDowell Yavapai Tribe President Bernadine Burnette said. “We will have limited gaming options available [and it] is still to be determined on how much of the casino floor will be open.”

At Fort McDowell Casino, the slot machines will be opened for play with proper distancing, and there will be plastic and plexiglass inserted between machines and public areas.

“A lot of Arizona casinos are using the same manufacturers for many of the new casino floor requirements, so it will be a continuous process, not a one-time transaction,” Burnette said.

The process of opening May 15 is being duplicated down Interstate 10 by Casino del Sol Resort in Tucson, which also will offer a modified casino floor to observe distancing and sanitary guidelines.

While the complete closing of operations is new for most casinos in the Arizona market, Casino del Sol has an annual tradition of closing operations that has helped immensely in this situation.

“Every year the Wednesday before Easter, we close until Easter Monday at 8 a.m. for tribal ceremonies,” Casino del Sol CEO Kimberly Van Amburg said. “We always use that time to make on-site improvements. So, we have done this before, but not for so long.”

Like Fort McDowell, Casino del Sol will be implementing social distancing on the casino floor, including plexiglass barriers, distancing floor stickers and providing an increased security presence, cleaning staff and on-site cleaning supplies.

“The way we look at the casino floor today before we open will be different once we open and have to start making adjustments in real time,” Van Amburg said. “We are not opening the pools or the spa. That will be closed for the foreseeable future to ensure maximum safety for employees and guests.”

“We have to find out if this is going to be the gaming experience people want, and what that looks like in three months," she said. "Nobody knows that in any casino market, so we will all make improvements together and follow learned best practices.”

Along with Fort McDowell Casino and Casino del Resort opening on May 15, the Gila River Casinos-Wild Horse Pass, Harrah’s Ak-Chin in Maricopa, Lone Butte and Vee Quiva are slated to open on May 15. But other operations, including Casino Arizona and Talking Stick Resort, have suspended operations through May 31.

Casino floors always have expansive spaces, a design that allows for floor management. That's been a boon to executives as they try out multiple floor setups designed to maximize distancing, create efficient one-way walking routes and minimize narrow corridors and walkways.

The Arizona casino market, which has over 20 casinos spread across the state and nearly a dozen in the Phoenix and Tucson metropolitan areas, also has a distinct advantage over the Las Vegas casino market.

Operators said that most Arizona casino guests are locals and regulars who are familiar with the casino floor's designs and the locations of things like restrooms and ATM machines, helping guarantee more attention to appropriate spacing. Las Vegas casinos usually have many visitors there for the first time.

“We do not have a high volume of out-of-state visitors, and that is going to benefit us for the long-term in maintaining compliance and minimizing risk,” Van Amburg said.

The Fort McDowell Yavapai Tribe is also opening a new hotel and casino right next to their current site, which was built in 1984. The original grand opening date was slated for July, but the pandemic has put that project at least temporarily on hold with a new estimated grand opening date set for October.

When it does open, the $140M project will cover over 245K SF of socially distanced slot machines, a 750-seat bingo hall, a new poker room, a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week restaurant and a buffet that may have a delayed opening. The upstairs second level of the casino will be home to retail and offices, and the entire site will have 650 parking spaces, a parking garage and a multi-lane valet parking service.

“We have had major vendors located in both China and Italy and that has played a big part in the delays,” Burnette said. “However, I believe it does give us an advantage since we can implement the necessary changes as we design the casino floor. There will be a lot of ‘new’ to offer to the experience and we will have to go from there once guests arrive.”

Burnette said she and the Fort McDowell Yavapai Tribe have been in contact more often with the general contractor Kitchell, engineering firm Stantec, TBE Architects and other subcontractors.

“We were taking tours of the project every four to six weeks, but now we have not been on the site for two months,” Burnette said. “With construction identified as an essential service, we have had subcontractors experience reduced attendance, and have had to make on-site testing of all workers mandatory along with wearing a mask.”

Casino del Sol finished several new construction projects over the last year that are being modified to meet new standards, including in a new 151-room hotel and conference center. At their Casino of the Sun property next door, an events center for concerts, weddings and entertainment will also be modified to meet new restrictions. The pool and the water slide at the hotel will be closed indefinitely.

“The way we reopen will be so important to customers and team members, and we need to do it right,” Van Amburg said. “Even though we have spent a lot of time, there will be small details we may miss, but we know in advance it is an ongoing process for improvement.”