Clay Dubois, the owner of Elite Chip Care, used to get one, maybe two inquiries from casino companies in a week.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began, he said his Las Vegas chip cleaning business has been getting two to three calls from operators across the country per day.
Casinos have been ramping up cleaning efforts in recent weeks as concerns over COVID-19 heighten. Dubois said his business helps clean one of those most frequently touched items.
“Their only other recourse was have their team members do it by hand, which was unbelievably slow, or order new chips,” he said. “All we have to do is sweep the dirt off and we can prolong the life of the chip.”
Scott Morrow, a hospitality lecturer at UNLV with roughly 40 years worth of experience in the gaming industry, said it’s rare for casinos to clean chips.
“In my experience in the industry, it doesn’t happen often enough,” he said. “I’ve worked in operations where the chips were never cleaned in 20, 30 years.”
Brian Hedlund, a microbiologist and UNLV Professor, did a study looking at how much bacteria is on Las Vegas casino chips about 15 years ago. Turns out, they’re pretty dirty.
His team swabbed poker chips from five Las Vegas casinos and found they had between “a few hundred” and 5,000 bacteria per chip.
In comparison, Hedlund said human skin has about 1,000 bacteria per square centimeter.
While it may seem like a lot, Hedlund said it’s no worse than other frequent touch points, like door knobs or money.
“It’s just something else that people are touching,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea to wash the chips every once in a while, but the chips aren’t something magically dangerous.”
While local casinos have elevated cleaning efforts in other ways, such as telling staff to wipe down areas like elevator buttons and door handles more often, Morrow said cleaning chips internally is a “very difficult task.”
“It can’t be done on the casino floor,” he said. “There has to be surveillance involved because you’re talking about one of your most precious assets.”
No preventative measures
Dubois is the sole employee of Las Vegas-based Elite Chip Care.
The company uses six ultrasonic cleaners to get chips looking good as new. When a chip is dropped into the water, a gray cloud of dirt rises alongside hundreds of microscopic bubbles.
Dubois said the water after a cleaning can be “pretty gray.”
“There’s sludge at the bottom from everything that comes off,” he said.
But Dubois said the company’s secret weapon is his patent-pending basket design, which can fit up to 640 chips.
And to make sure any bacteria is killed off after a wash, Dubois has a convection oven that can heat up to 170 degrees.
While more casinos have been contacting Dubois since the virus outbreak, he said he tries to make it clear the cleaning is not a preventative measure.
“I can sterilize your chips in the ovens today, somebody comes in tomorrow and sneezes on your chips and guess what? You’ve got a viral outbreak,” he said.
According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it “may be possible” that a person gets COVID-19 by touching a surface or object with the virus and then touching their face, “but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.”
While the cleaning won’t stop a virus outbreak, Dubois said there are other benefits, like getting rid of dirt or sticky substances or improving the game’s presentation.
Morrow said the main reason to clean the chips would be to instill a positive perception among guests and team members.
“Anything we can do that says we understand there are challenges out there, and this is what we’re doing to ease tensions and make a positive impact and reduce risk,” he said.