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Pandemic Poker Means Less People, Fewer Drinks, Crazy Bets

Bloomberg logoBloomberg 9/21/2020 Joe Schneider and Christopher Palmeri

(Bloomberg) -- It’s 2 p.m. Labor Day in the poker room at Caesars Palace, and the $150 buy-in Texas Hold ’em tournament is about to get underway. Trouble is, there are only 13 players.

Last year, such a tournament would have drawn at least five times as many entrants. To make up for the lack of bodies, Caesars Entertainment Inc. let players reenter an unlimited number of times in the first two hours if they lose all their chips. About an hour into the game, a new arrival takes full advantage of the rule change and throws what looked like a standard game into total pandemonium.

a room that has a sign on the side of a building: Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures © Bloomberg Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures

A safety guidelines sign is displayed outside Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

Photographer: Roger Kisby/Bloomberg

He goes all in on his first hand and loses. He immediately rebuys, goes all in and loses again. He throws another $150 on the table, for another 15,000 chips. Within 15 minutes, the new player has spent $750 competing for a first prize of just over $1,000. Is this pandemic poker or just a very aggressive player? It’s not clear. But his strategy ultimately doesn’t work and he’s eliminated for the last time several hands later.

Welcome to Las Vegas in the time of coronavirus. The city began reopening its giant casino hotels on June 4, but guests -- particularly those traveling by air -- have been reluctant to return. The overall number of visitors tumbled 61% to 1.4 million in July, the first full month the casinos were open. Gambling revenue on the Strip fell 39% to $330.1 million from a year ago.

On Monday, shares of big casino companies including Caesars, MGM Resorts International and Las Vegas Sands Corp. plunged more than 6% in a broader selloff that saw the S&P 500 slump as much as 2.7%.

Resort operators have been trying to lure guests with discounted rooms. A recent stay at Bally’s, a Caesars property, cost just $10 a night for one semi-frequent gambler. The total for three nights with taxes and resort fees was $130. Room service wasn’t offered.

Unlike some cities, indoor dining is allowed in Las Vegas. That was a relief because the unusually hot summer made outdoor seating unbearable for many guests, notes Elizabeth Blau, a restaurant consultant and operator.

With local rules prohibiting patrons from sitting at bars, Blau put stuffed animals on the stools at Honey Salt, a bistro she co-owns northeast of the Strip. She also offered fixed-price family-style dinners to attract budget conscious guests. Bars get to reopen starting Monday.

Blau closed Buddy V’s Ristorante, another of her properties, to remodel it. The restaurant at Sands’ Venetian reopened last week doing about half its normal business.

“It’s been pretty devastating for everyone, especially on the Strip, because the convention business is gone,” she said. Local officials have prohibited gatherings of more than 50 people, a killer for the crucial meetings-and-convention business.

Gallery: I've reported extensively on safe travel and avoided hotels for months, but the Four Seasons Westlake Village wooed me back with their commitment to safety — here's what it was like to stay there (Business Insider)

With fewer guests and reduced capacity, resorts have been reluctant to bring back workers. MGM said last month it was laying off 18,000 employees nationwide, most of them in Las Vegas.

Signs in the casinos remind patrons that masks are required and encourage safety protocols like social distancing and frequent hand-washing. Only four people at a time are allowed on elevators, officially, though that sometimes seems to be ignored. Outdoors, about half the people walking along the Las Vegas Strip didn’t wear masks or had pulled them down around their necks.

a group of people walking in front of a crowd: Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures © Bloomberg Caesars Entertainment Inc. Locations Ahead Of Earnings Figures

Pedestrians cross Las Vegas Boulevard in front of the Caesars on July 28.

Photographer: Roger Kisby/Bloomberg

The slot-machine floors look different, as well, often with every other machine disabled to enforce social distancing. The core slot players, older guests, have been hesitant to travel due to the virus, notes Nick Hogan, whose ReelMetrics tracks slot-machine data. He called the senior shortage “unquestionably the pandemic’s greatest threat to casinos globally.”

Adam Wiesberg, general manager of the El Cortez casino in downtown Las Vegas, said he’s removed over 200 slot machines and put those remaining in circular or X-shaped configurations so players can keep their distance. Extra staffing on the casino floor is on hand to wipe down the devices. “We try to get them cleaned as soon as somebody stands up,” he said.

The Reno Gazette-Journal published a list Friday of individual hotels with Covid-19 exposures over a 30-day period analyzed in August by county investigators. Cosmopolitan Las Vegas, owned by Blackstone Group, topped the list with more than 300.

In a statement, the Cosmopolitan said it’s been seeing “significant progress due to our improved procedures,” along with the governor’s mask mandate. “Employee positive tests are down more than 80% from July, and the numbers continue to decline,” the resort said.

Wynn Resorts Ltd. has taken the unusual step of releasing detailed Covid-19 testing data for its employees and guests. The company said Thursday that 548 of its workers have tested positive out of more than 15,000 tests administered. Contact tracing that the company performs with 10 in-house staffers suggests 98% of the illnesses were caught outside of work. Out of some 500,000 overall visitors since June, six customers tested positive after in-room exams. On Friday, the company said it was reopening its poker room.

Changes in poker rooms are easy to spot. Seating at the tables has been reduced to eight players from 10 and each guest is separated by a plastic divider.

Tables get wiped down after every 30 minutes with the change of dealers. Hand sanitizer is freely dispensed to anyone who asks for it. Vegas’s famous free drinks are tougher to get, with one server apparently handling the whole room at Caesars.

Masks make it harder to read the players’ faces. Voices are muffled, so it’s harder to hear, too, whether it’s someone announcing a raise, or just making chitchat. One player had to be reminded several times by the dealer to keep his mask above his nose. He grumbled that he has trouble breathing, but he complied.

(Updates with share prices in fifth paragraph.)

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