Cripple Creek casinos reopen Monday, but don’t expect them to operate anything like they did when the 12 gambling halls closed three months ago as part of state restrictions to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
The number of slot machines available for play likely will be half of the 3,510 machines that were on casino floors as of Feb. 29; none of the 53 blackjack, poker or roulette tables or any sportsbooks will be open, and some casino restaurants will remain shuttered. Each casino will open only a handful of entrances to route customers through stations where they will have their temperature measured with a touchless thermometer and mask-wearing casino personnel will ensure customers are also wearing a a mask.
Even with those restrictions, Cripple Creek’s casinos are expecting big crowds, and possibly long lines, when all but one open at 10 a.m. Monday, based on calls they have received from customers and the big crowds that casinos in Las Vegas and other states have drawn when they reopened earlier. That will be a welcome change from the nearly empty streets of the past three months in the mountain gaming and mining town, where the only businesses operating included a few restaurants offering takeout orders, two grocery stores, a hardware store and a gas station.
“I’m a 20-year casino industry veteran and the sound of slot machines hitting a jackpot and someone winning a hand of poker or blackjack are second nature,” said Matt Andrighetti, general manager of the Wildwood Casino and a Cripple Creek resident. “The whole town was shut down. About the only thing people did was walk their dogs, look for hiking trails or go to the grocery store because we cooked a lot more than we had takeout.”
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The shutdown was the first for the industry since casinos opened in Cripple Creek 29 years ago; the empty streets were an uncommon sight in a city where casinos have operated around the clock since 2009. Crowded casinos were a common sight on summer weekends, but casinos now are working to avoid shoulder-to-shoulder customers to comply with state and local guidelines that limit the number of people in the building and mandate they stay at least 6 feet apart to avoid spreading the virus.
For many casinos, that will mean taking out at least half of the chairs in front of slot machines and using hosts to make sure players who aren’t from the same family don’t sit next to each other. At Bronco Billy’s, managers removed 225 of 824 slot machines and may turn off another 166 if regulators don’t approve installation of plexiglass dividers between machines that are right next to each other.
Bronco Billy’s general manager Baxter Lee, said the casino’s slot operations manager, Rodney Brawner, came up with dozens of plans during the past five weeks to maximize the number of slot machines the casino could operate while still meeting social distancing requirements. Every slot machine matters to a Cripple Creek casino since the average machine produces about $150 a day in revenue (after paying jackpots). That means Bronco Billy’s will lose potential revenue of more than $30,000 a day from the machines put into storage.
“This is absolutely addition by subtraction. We worked very hard to keep as many games as possible. This layout gives us the most games possible while meeting the requirements,” Lee said. “The layout doesn’t just depend on putting machines six 6 apart; you also have to worry about where you have power and where the network cables are.” In many cases, the layout meant converting long rows of slot machines to pods of four each at a 90-degree angle from the one next to it.
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Bronco Billy’s is reopening just two of its four restaurants but will also reopen its Christmas Casino, which was slated to permanently close, because the extra floor space allows the casino complex to keep another 45 slot machines, Lee said. The Christmas Casino won’t be open Monday, but reopens at 2 p.m. Friday, June 19. Since table games won’t be allowed to reopen for at least three more weeks, the room dedicated to those games is roped off with dealers and other employees that work in that area remaining on furlough or reassigned to other duties.
Rearranging the casino floor was the last step for Bronco Billy’s at it prepared to reopen. The casino spent much of the first month or so of the closure on a massive cleaning project.
“The closure gave us an opportunity to clean that we didn’t have as a 24-hour operation. We did a complete floor-to-ceiling cleaning that included all the duct work and pipes,” Lee said. “We opened every slot machine and cleaned it inside and out and pulled equipment out of the restaurants and the cash cage to clean under and behind that equipment. Then we surveyed areas that needed paint and touch-up and had a small army of painters in here for the past two weeks.”
A recent water-line replacement project in front of the casino also spread dust that prompted the Bronco Billy’s to clean and replace filters in the casino’s 47 air-handling systems.
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About half of Bronco Billy’s nearly 300-person staff has been recalled from furlough and is being retrained on new health and safety procedures.
Lee is expecting a big crowd on Monday. Even with fewer machines on the floor of Bronco Billy’s, he is optimistic customers will spend the same amount they did before the shutdown.
“Our sister casino in Mississippi reopened with half the number of slots it had before the shutdown but they are doing as much revenue as they did before,” Lee said.