79°F
weather icon Mostly Cloudy

Lines form, crowd cheers for reopening of Arizona casino Friday

Updated May 15, 2020 - 7:31 pm

MARICOPA, Ariz. — Five casinos in the Phoenix area opened Friday, offering a glimpse into what heightened health and sanitation measures — and pent-up demand — may look like in Las Vegas casinos in the weeks to come.

By 8:45 a.m. a long line of gamblers — some wearing masks, others not — wrapped around the Harrah’s Ak-Chin casino, eager for doors to open at 9.

The crowd cheered and people flooded into the casino, which had been closed since March 19. Staff members held open the doors, their faces hidden behind cloth face masks, and reminded guests to keep their distance.

“(The shutdown has) been hard,” said Jennifer Duncan, of Surprise, Arizona, one of the first to re-enter the casino. “You’re isolated and bored. … I was definitely excited to get in and be able to sit down at a slot machine.”

Every other slot machine on the casino floor was unavailable for use, and signage throughout the floor reminded people to keep their distance.

One sign covering a slot machine screen read, “Don’t get too close, you’re turning me on.” Other signs suggested that guests wash hands frequently and wear a mask. Stickers on the floor reminded them to keep 6 feet apart.

There was limited seating at blackjack tables, each with a $10 limit. The tables would normally be $5 at this time of the day, according to Alan Kay, a retired Maricopa resident who would visit the casino five times a week to play poker before the shutdowns. The property’s poker room, as well as keno and bingo, remained closed.

Staffers diligently wiped down touch points, and hand sanitizer was available at multiple stations.

The property is managed by Caesars Entertainment Corp. and owned by the Ak-Chin Indian Community. According to Caesars’ latest annual filing, the property normally has 1,150 slot machines and 30 table games spread across its 65,200-square-foot casino.

Las Vegans Mihaela and Tom Steyer drove down for the opening Friday morning, leaving at 2:30 a.m.

“Six hours is nothing,” Mihaela Steyer said, noting that she and her husband had gone to a casino in Idaho last week, a 16-hour drive.

She said she does not have any safety concerns as the casino reopens amid the pandemic.

“I don’t worry,” she said, adding that she keeps her distance from others.

Neither she nor her husband wore a mask.

Karen Chappell, of Tucson, also decided to forgo a mask on Friday, saying that she’s “not worried at all” about COVID-19.

“If that’s God’s plan for me to catch it and die, that’s his plan,” she said. “Obviously I’m not going to take any chances. I’m not going to lick your face or anything. But I can’t live my life in fear.”

Sal Mesa, of Gilbert, Arizona, did not have a mask but said he was taking other precautions, keeping his distance from others and sanitizing his hands often.

He and his wife would visit the casino roughly twice a month before the shutdowns. He said that the two were excited when they learned local casinos would be back in business, and they plan to make a Las Vegas trip once Nevada’s casinos reopen.

“They say this (virus) will be around for a while. … I can only sit at home for so long,” he said. “I’m in my 60s. I’ve been around germs. I was a police officer for 29 years; I was exposed to a lot of things. I’m still here.”

While he believes that when “it’s your time, it’s your time,” Mesa said the heightened health and sanitation measures at the casino made him feel safer.

“I know everyone’s conscious (of the virus),” he said. “It seems like social distancing is working out the best they can.”

Caesars spokesman Richard Broome said the company was pleased that guests were ready to visit Ak-Chin.

“We will continue to work hard to ensure they, and our employees, feel comfortable at the property,” he said via email.

Gamblers can expect to see similar protocols in Caesars’ Las Vegas hotel-casinos. Broome said Ak-Chin’s heightened health and sanitation measures are “consistent with our other properties.”

Wild Horse Pass

Roughly 20 miles north of Ak-Chin, Gila River Gaming Enterprises Inc.’s Wild Horse Pass was packed with players early Friday afternoon.

The casino in Chandler, Arizona, opened at noon on Friday. Signs inside and outside advised guests to keep their distance and wear masks, although many in the property were not wearing face coverings. Others had their masks pulled down as they smoked.

While some slot machines were shut down to enforce social distancing, others were separated by a plexiglass safety shield.

Dorothy Hernandez visited the property with her daughter while her car was being serviced in Scottsdale. She said she was surprised it was as busy as it was — it was hard to find an open slot machine by 1 p.m. — but she felt safe playing slots with her mask.

Security guards stationed near the front entrance handed out water bottles and warned guests to remain 6 feet apart inside the casino, but Steven Sandoval, of Mesa, Arizona, said he thought many people were choosing to ignore the new guidelines.

Sandoval’s friend Peter D’Asaro pointed out a player who sat down at a slot machine immediately after another player left, not giving the staff a chance to wipe it down.

“People have to help out, too. It can’t be all on the casinos,” Sandoval said. “There are people without masks, people without gloves. … We have to bring it to another level of cleanliness.”

A representative of Gila River did not immediately return a request for comment.

D’Asaro said the two visited to see what the new casino safety measures looked like in action.

He plans to visit Las Vegas soon after it reopens. The two usually visit at least once a month, and D’Asaro, who said he’s been going to Las Vegas since he was a kid in the ’70s, is working on a Las Vegas-themed tattoo sleeve. He pointed out a “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign inked below his shoulder.

“This was a little trial run before we go to Vegas,” he said. “We wanted to see how it is.”

Lone Butte

Wild Horse Pass’ nearby sister property, Lone Butte, also dealt with heavy crowds on Friday.

At 3 p.m., a line of roughly 100 people wrapped in front of the building under a shaded entryway. Security guards allowed two guests in for every two who left.

Pattie Fransen waited in line about 15 minutes with her husband before being allowed into the casino. This was their second casino trip that day; they left Wild Horse Pass because of the crowds.

“They’re not doing a lot of social distancing inside,” she said of Wild Horse Pass. “It’s very packed. … You can’t really find a machine.”

But she harbored no ill will Friday, commenting on how friendly the staff was that day.

“I’m happy mostly for the people that work there,” she said. “They haven’t worked for two months, so we’re tipping a little extra.”

In the casino’s parking lot, Maxine Mills of Apache Junction tied a pink scarf around her face before walking in the casino.

Mills said the scarf was uncomfortable and hot but said staff told her to wear a mask when she called in.

According to Gila River’s website, guests are “encouraged” to wear masks.

“We’re just trying to get out and about today,” Mills said. “(It’s been) really boring. We’re just trying to have some fun.”

Contact Bailey Schulz at bschulz @reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0233. Follow @bailey_schulz on Twitter.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.
Business Videos
Status of renters and homeowners during COVID19 pandemic - Video
Rj reporter Eli Segall discusses how COVID19 is affecting renters and homeowners in Nevada. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Health experts: Smoking in casinos should be banned - Video
Experts say smoking can spread the COVID-19 coronavirus. But not because of airborne particulates. The virus could spread from a smoker’s likely pattern of fingers-to-mouth-to-gaming-device. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Knights’ empathy questioned
A sports talk host called this week a public relations disaster for the Knights and a tourism official said it may shorten the honeymoon period between the team and its devoted fan base.
Chinese visitors in Las Vegas - Video
There were 236,970 visitors from China in Las Vegas in 2018, according to data from the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Resorts World Las Vegas lights up - Video
Construction crews tested exterior lights at Resorts World on the Las Vegas Strip, May 19. (David Guzman/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Station Casinos releases health and safety plan for reopening - Video
Station Casinos rolled out new health and safety protocols Monday morning, May 18, including the use of thermal scanners, testing all employees for COVID-19 and “enhanced cleaning technologies.” (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Maverick Helicopters offers 250 free tours for two - VIDEO
Maverick Helicopters will restart its flights on Friday, according to a news release. To celebrate, Maverick will give away 250 flights for two with its “Our Vegas” promotion. (James Schaffer/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
MGM Resorts to bring back free parking on Las Vegas Strip - VIDEO
MGM Resorts on Monday announced free parking for all guests at its Strip resorts for the foreseeable future. New York-New York and Bellagio are the first announced hotels to reopen for casino business and return to the golden days of no-cost parking.
Laughlin’s iconic Colorado Belle to stay closed indefinitely - VIDEO
The Colorado Belle, an iconic hotel-casino on the Colorado River in Laughlin, will stay closed for the foreseeable future and lay off its 400 workers. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Laughlin’s iconic Colorado Belle to stay closed indefinitely; 400 to lose jobs - VIDEO
The Colorado Belle, an iconic hotel-casino on the Colorado River in Laughlin, will stay closed for the foreseeable future and lay off its 400 workers.
MSG Sphere construction site remains dormant - Video
The MSG Sphere at The Venetian construction site remains sidelined and representatives of MSG Entertainment offered no updates on when workers might return. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Gaming Control Board keeping reopening plans confidential
The state Gaming Control Board requires every licensee, from the megaresorts to the corner gas station convenience store slot machine operators, to submit reopening plans, but they intend to keep them confidential.
Natural turf added to Allegiant Stadium field tray
The massive field tray, which will roll in and out of the stadium, has a fresh layer of natural grass turf for Raiders home games.
Players show up at Gila River Casino in Arizona - Video
Gila River Casino at Wild Horse Pass in Chandler, Arizona, is packed with players on the casino’s reopening day, Friday, May 15, 2020. (Elizabeth BrumleyLas Vegas Review-Journal)
Casinos reopening in Phoenix area - Video
Harrah’s Ak-Chin Casino reopened in Maricopa, Arizona, on Friday, May 15, 2020. It was closed during the government shutdown for coronavirus. (Elizabeth Brumley/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Caesars Entertainment to phase In reopenings - Video
Caesars Entertainment, the operator of Caesars Palace and eight other Las Vegas resorts, on Monday announced it would phase in reopenings with a comprehensive safety and health plan with employees wearing masks across its network of properties. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Nevada Gaming Commission meeting
Full meeting of the Nevada Gaming Commission on Thursday, May 7, 2020.
Sisolak says businesses will begin reopening under phase 1 - VIDEO
The first phase of reopening Nevada’s businesses will begin Saturday, May 9, Gov. Steve Sisolak said Thursday. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Henderson winery reacts to Sisolak's economic plan - VIDEO
Governor Sisolak's reopening plan is easier said than done for the only winery in Clark County. Grape Expectations is trying to figure out how to open up shop when they are three businesses in one. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Southwest requiring face coverings
In an effort to increase safety for passengers and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic, Southwest Airlines is updating protocols that include requiring passengers to wear face coverings beginning May 11.
Locals rush to reopened tennis courts
Daniel Nunez and Sarah Germain made immediate plans to go to their local tennis court, Darling Tennis Center, when they received an email that the facility would open on May 1.
Businesses in Henderson begin reopening - VIDEO
In downtown Henderson and at The District at Green Valley Ranch, small shops are opening their doors for business. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
MGM CEO: Bellagio, New York-New York to reopen first after shutdown - VIDEO
The head of MGM Resorts International isn’t sure when he’ll be able to open properties in Las Vegas, but said Thursday that New York-New York and Bellagio will likely be the first to open their doors. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New visitation report shows plunging numbers for March
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority reported Thursday that convention attendance fell 54.8 percent to 249,800. March normally is one of the city’s strongest months for conventions and trade shows.
US jobless claims climb to 30 million in 6 weeks - VIDEO
The Labor Department released the tally of the most recent jobless claims on Thursday. First-time claims for the week ending on April 25 increased by more than 3.84 million. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)
The Venetian to have EMTs, thermal cameras upon reopening - VIDEO
The hotel-casino operator, Las Vegas Sands Corp., announced updated protocols on April 28 for when its Las Vegas properties reopen, sometime after May 31. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Unions contracts expiring - VIDEO
RJ investigations reporter Arthur Kane and Renee Summerour discuss the uncertainty of union contracts expiring in June, and how the extent of the financial damage from the crisis will make it difficult for unions and governments to negotiate collective bargaining agreements, possibly sending many to arbitration. (Renee Summerour/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Strip hoteliers outline cleaning plans upon reopening - VIDEO
Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak has yet to confirm when casinos will be able to reopen, but operators are already preparing for the day they’ll have to reassure guests their properties are clean and safe amid the virus outbreak. (James Schaeffer / Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Treasure Island plans to reopen May 15 - VIDEO
Treasure Island is planning to open its doors to guests May 15, despite Gov. Steve Sisolak saying Wednesday that gaming shutdowns, currently set to end April 30, will probably be extended an undetermined amount of time. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Raiders logo goes up on Henderson headquarters - VIDEO
The iconic Raiders emblem gets installed on the team's headquarters and practice facility in Henderson on April 22, 2020. (Michael Quine/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
THE LATEST
Casino suppliers feel the sting of COVID-19, too

Supply companies — those who work behind the scenes making sure Las Vegas resort-casinos are stocked up on food, clothes, fresh laundry and more — have also been hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.