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Is Nevada the ‘gold standard’ for casino coronavirus response?

Whenever experts begin comparing gaming jurisdictions, you’re bound to hear the phrase “gold standard” dropped in the conversation.

It’s a mark of best in class that often gets attributed to Nevada because the state has been in the business for so long.

Since 1955, the state has been reviewing policies and regulations about gaming, and dozens of other states have looked to Nevada for leadership in how to control the industry.

But lately, some experts have questioned whether Nevada presented the “gold standard” as it relates to the state and its gaming industry’s response to minimizing the damage of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I know they took a lot of testimony from a lot of health-case experts and have relied on that, and I also know that they continue to talk to their health care experts,” said A.G. Burnett, a Reno-based gaming attorney who chaired the state Gaming Control Board from 2012 to 2017. “In my opinion, they’ve done a very thorough job.”

But for former Nevada Gaming Commission Chairman Tony Alamo, a health care professional, said the lag between discussion of the problem and action was excruciating, and regulators didn’t do enough to get a grip on the problem.

“This whole thing was messed up from the beginning,” Alamo said. “At the end of the day, common sense wasn’t able to be used because of the misinformation we were getting from science.”

As for other jurisdictions that often follow Nevada’s lead, things were only worse.

“I don’t think the other states did it very well, either,” Alamo said. “Everybody did it wrong. Look at how New York was mishandled. There were mistakes all over the place. On one side, (New York Gov. Andrew) Cuomo said the sky is falling and wanted 40,000 ventilators. We even gave him a ship (the Navy hospital vessel Comfort). He never used it.”

Because states are entrusted with monitoring their own gaming operations, each one has had its own method of dealing with the issues of pre-admission temperature checks of employees and casino patrons, social distancing on casino floors, the touching of cards, dice and other equipment and, the most controversial of all, the use of facial coverings by patrons and casino employees.

Gaming Control Board Chairwoman Sandra Morgan, who contends that Nevada has been the “gold standard” for coronavirus preparation, also has noted that policies established through health professionals and government leaders have been so fluid that what might stand as policy one day could easily be updated the next.

Different frameworks

She also noted that Nevada’s casino environment is far different from that of any other in the world, and that influenced the rollout of health and safety plans.

“Every state has a different regulatory framework when it comes to gaming,” Morgan said. “Massachusetts (which has yet to reopen) has three licensees, and they have the benefit of each and every licensee being able to submit their plans to the gaming commission there and have an open-meeting discussion, and they have a $36 million budget. We have a $44 million budget and have 2,000 licensees. So that’s something Nevada simply can’t do.”

Morgan said the goal was to develop universal standards. But that, too, was challenging because every licensee in Nevada is different.

“There are around 450 nonrestricted gaming licensees, those with more than 16 slot machines, race and sports books, table games, bingo halls and convention space. They’re all very different properties.”

With so many different types of amenities — restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, spas and swimming pools — it was clear that other regulatory entities had to be a part of the discussion.

“Yes, we were not the first commercial casino gaming operation to open. … I think that was South Dakota,” she said. “But we published our policies and had an almost four-hour workshop with health professionals, something that other gaming commissions and boards haven’t done.”

Who’s the best?

So what states have the best health and safety policies in place? That, too, is difficult to gauge because setting a rule and enforcing it are two different things.

Greg Chase, founder and CEO of Las Vegas-based Experience Strategy Associates, as part of his bid to provide policy advice to his customers, went on a recreational vehicle road trip to surrounding states to get a read for what is working and what isn’t.

“I would say that California was by far the strictest when it came down to standards and having thought through some of the more detailed elements that contribute to public health and safety,” Chase said. “For instance, (casino) employers in California are not allowed to touch cards at the table, and instead the dealer reveals the cards for each player. So only one person’s set of hands is touching a deck of cards as opposed to up to five sitting at a table.”

But Morgan said that rule and possibly several others aren’t likely to be consistent across the state because casinos in California are operated by Indian tribes, which are deemed sovereign nations and can set and play by their own rules.

But Chase actually views that as a positive because tribes don’t have to be held to a state or local guideline and can impose tougher rules than commercial casinos.

Kudos for California

“Because of that level of detail, frankly, California has been very impressive to me,” Chase said.

But not all tribal casinos are so conscientious. In Arizona, the Gila River Indian Community, operators of the Lone Butte and Wild Horse Pass casinos near Chandler and Vee Quiva casino near Laveen, closed their doors June 18 after a security guard at Lone Butte died of a COVID-19 infection. The tribe never disclosed how many employees were infected in that outbreak. The three casinos have since reopened.

“Arizona was a bit of a free-for-all,” Chase said. “But in Nevada, I have not experienced one casino where they are not allowing players to touch cards.”

Greg Mullen, vice president of CDC Consulting, which has had people attend 80 casino reopenings nationwide, also praised the California tribal operations and said the San Manuel Casino in San Bernardino County “top to bottom is one of the best we’ve seen.”

Mullen said the casino has even been doing some advertising to attract Las Vegas customers because of the potential appeal of a smoke-free environment. The casino had a mask-mandatory rule long before Nevada adopted its policy.

Mullen said some safety efforts have been halfhearted at best. In Cincinnati, he said, patrons called mask and social distancing rules “ridiculous” and often ignored them. In Oklahoma’s tribal casinos, Mullen said, rather than checking temperatures at the door, managers relied on the honor system of patrons saying whether they had a fever.

But then, there are some places with tough standards.

In Massachusetts, where MGM Resorts International and Wynn Resorts Ltd. will reopen their casinos Monday, not only will mandatory masks be the rule in addition to the casinos being smoke-free, but craps, poker or roulette play also won’t be allowed because too much equipment — cards, dice or chips — would be touched by multiple individuals.

Morgan suspects that some of the rules being imposed by late openers like New Jersey and Massachusetts have gained insight from Nevada’s experience.

“They have to look at their own statistics in their own states,” Morgan said. “We definitely communicate with other regulators. Michigan even thanked us publicly.”

Morgan said Nevada hasn’t taken any ideas from what other states are doing, but it still maintains an open dialogue about best practices.

Don’t expect that to change as Nevada enters a new phase in addressing coronavirus concerns: enforcement.

Violations on deck

“As you saw — it’s not something we normally do — but we did share the number of observations (of violations) that we had,” Morgan said. “It was 111 as of (Wednesday), but there are more than that as of (Thursday) of regulatory violations that actually have gone to gaming licensees.”

The process will be different from the usual gaming disciplinary matter because the Control Board will be working with the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration and county and municipal health and business licensing entities.

But those that fall within the purview of gaming will go through the normal process of the Control Board reviewing a complaint, working with the licensee and, when necessary, filing a formal complaint through the attorney general’s office to be adjudicated by the Gaming Commission.

“For the first week of reopening, since no one had gone through this, we were working with licensees, talking with them and encouraging compliance,” she said. “After that first week, it was time to start issuing notices of violation.”

What the response will be and whether any other jurisdiction follows Nevada’s lead remains to be seen. But it is another way the state is taking an extra step toward curbing the virus.

“I think it’s important, the fact that Nevada has taken that extra step, and certainly for Clark County, to show that we were prepared for this and we were going to be able to care for those visitors and guests,” Morgan said.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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