Casinos in Alabama are allowed to reopen, but don’t expect it to happen in the next four weeks.
The casinos and resorts of Alabama’s only federally recognized Indian Tribe have been preparing to reopen following the coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
But they are preparing for a “soft reopening” first to test a suite of new policies and procedures, officials with Wind Creek Hospitality, the tribe’s company, say.
Casinos in Mississippi were allowed to reopen today in time for the Memorial Day weekend, while casinos in Louisiana can start reopening in most places Monday. However, they remain closed in New Orleans. Gov. Kay Ivey today announced changes to Alabama’s existing coronavirus measures, allowing entertainment venues, such as arcades, theaters and bowling alleys to reopen effective Friday afternoon.
Wind Creek Hospitality CEO Jay Dorris said Thursday that the company has not yet set a date for when it plans to reopen its four hotel properties and casinos in Alabama at Wetumpka, Atmore, Montgomery and the Mobile Greyhound Track.
However, Dorris said it would be realistic to expect an announcement within the next month or two.
“When customers come in, we want them to have a sense of escape, to have fun, but we also want them to feel safe, as well as our employees,” he said. “We think our plan gives us the means to do that.”
Wind Creek, which also operates resorts in Aruba, Curacao, Nevada and Florida, closed its facilities in March to halt the spread of COVID-19. In late April, CEO Jay Dorris said the company has spent the lockdown looking for ways to limit the number of guests, increase sanitizing efforts, and get personal protective equipment (PPE) for employees.
Since then, Dorris said, the company has been working with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control, the Alabama Department of Public Health, and guidance from Montgomery area pulmonologist Dr. David Thrasher, as well as an epidemiology team with the United South and Eastern Tribes, a non-profit, inter-Tribal organization representing 30 federally-recognized Tribal Nations.
According to a seven-page plan the company has put together, several changes will be implemented once the casinos and resorts open:
- Admittance will be kept well below normal capacity for social distancing.
- Floor markers, posters and other materials will be used to remind guests and employees of distancing.
- Public areas will be closed four times a day for one‐hour intensive cleaning sessions. That means there will be four five-hour daily sessions. At the end of each session, all guests have to leave the property, except for hotel guests who can return to their rooms or public outdoor spaces.
Dorris said he feels these cleaning periods are “a step above” efforts by other casinos and will be in addition to normal cleaning throughout the day.
- Shoulder-to-shoulder play will not be allowed.
- Masks or cloth face coverings will be mandatory at all properties for both guests and employees. Those without one will be provided one. People refusing to wear one will be asked to leave.
- Smoking on the floor, in bathrooms or public spaces will be prohibited. There will be designated smoking areas.
- Hotels will be operated at 50 percent occupancy, and hotel rooms will be left unoccupied for at least 24 hours until they are thoroughly cleaned.
- Restaurants will be reconfigured to provide six feet between diners. All self-service dining options will be replaced by wait-staff service only.
In addition, there will be hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the properties and ventilation will be increased. Employees will be sent home if they show fever, cough or shortness of breath.
Who gets into the properties might also be different. According to the plan, Wind Creek “may deny entrance to our properties to guests who arrive from a county that may represent minimal, moderate or substantial levels of COVID-19 community transmission.”
And groups of more than four will be asked to separate into socially distanced groups of four or less, the plan stated.
Dorris said Wind Creek also plans to first have a soft opening with private invited events to bring people in to see how the new operation will work. That should take three to four weeks before opening, to allow time for feedback and tweaks. Once reopening happens, guests will be allowed back using a reservation system, allowing guests to reserve a day and time in advance in order to limit the number of people on the property.
Formulating a reopening plan has not been easy, Dorris said.
“Our understanding of COVID-19 and what we’re dealing with has been changing every day,” he said. “As we’ve gotten further into it, we’ve seen an emerging consensus about certain things and how it moves across different regions, and we’ve tried to be mindful of that. We want to be as safe as we can be for our customers and employees.”
Wind Creek kept full-time employees employed with benefits during the closure. Dorris said the shutdown has had “a significant impact” on the company.
“But we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve been able to have a lot of success,” he said. “That success means we’ve been able to weather this better than others. It’s been costly, but we were and are prepared to weather it, and we fully expect to be stronger than ever in the long run.”