Plexiglass barriers and mandatory masks greet gamblers as casinos reopen
With few options for entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rosanne Farrell happily agreed to meet a friend Wednesday morning at the newly reopened Grand Victoria Casino in Elgin.
"There's supposed to be separate seats," the Woodstock woman said about safety precautions mandated for the reopening. "She suggested this, and I said, 'Sounds good to me.'"
Grand Victoria was one of the state's 10 casinos, including five in the suburbs, allowed to reopen Wednesday after being shut down for 3½ months by the COVID-19 pandemic. Joining it were Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, the Hollywood Casinos in Aurora and Joliet, and Harrah's in Joliet.
Requirements of the reopening included face masks on patrons and employees, 6-foot social distancing measures and no casino buffets.
The reopening comes a day after Gov. J.B. Pritzker signed legislation reworking the tax structure for a proposed Chicago casino, making added competition for the suburban gambling houses a near certainty.
Tom Gorski of Carol Stream said he picked a good time to be on vacation and among the first to visit the Elgin casino again.
"I like just going and relaxing, playing the slot machine, nice and easy," he said. "I like going early and getting out by 4 p.m."
Casino spokeswoman Marilou Pilman didn't return requests for comment.
Elgin Mayor David Kaptain said he's glad the casino reopened, because it brings revenue to the city -- in normal times, $745,000 per month -- and provides jobs for workers, about 700 pre-pandemic.
Kaptain said he spoke with casino officials about two weeks ago. "They were ready to go and waiting for the state to make a determination about Phase 4," he said.
After initially making plans to reopen at noon, Rivers in Des Plaines got an early start Wednesday morning, welcoming patrons back on the casino floor before 11 a.m.
They were greeted by newly installed protective plexiglass throughout the casino, slot machines rearranged to promote social distancing, limited seating at gambling tables, and new health and safety procedures such as mandatory masks for employees and visitors.
Rivers also is limiting its capacity to 50%, consistent with the reopening protocols established by the Illinois Gaming Board.
Jeff Alexander of Racine, Wisconsin, who said he visited Rivers Casino about once a month before the pandemic, returned to get the lay of the land Wednesday. Though he stayed for only a half-hour because the low-stakes tables he usually plays were full, Alexander said he didn't find it a disappointing or wasted trip.
"I was just curious," he said. "It was kind of a recon mission for me."
Alexander said he prefers Rivers due to the nonsmoking environment and liked the additional precautions he saw in place Wednesday.
Many of those precautions were based on observations from already opened casinos in other states, including Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, said Rivers General Manager Corey Wise.
The biggest goal, he said, is to keep everyone safe and happy and for the business to do its part in maintaining the forward direction of Pritzker's Restore Illinois plan.
"I think people want to get out and have a little enjoyment," Wise said. "I don't want to regress. We want to do this in a safe manner for our team members and our guests."
Wise said it would be difficult to immediately forecast the impact of the 50% occupancy restriction on future revenues because operating at full capacity was not a common occurrence before the pandemic.
Des Plaines officials did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday on the financial impact of Rivers' 3½-month shutdown.
Rivers Casino spokesman Patrick Skarr said there are high hopes for a quick recovery at what has become Illinois' highest-earning casino.
The casino opened a sports betting parlor just days before the state-ordered shutdown in March and last month launched an online sportsbook. Before the pandemic, the casino had added 130 new gambling positions, as allowed under the state's gambling expansion bill passed in 2019, and was planning a building expansion to add 670 more.
The city of Aurora will know the full financial impact of casino revenue losses at the end the month.
"As we continue into Phase 4, we are thrilled to see the reopening of our businesses, including some of the city's major revenue generators" such as Hollywood Casino, Aurora Mayor Richard C. Irvin said.
• Daily Herald staff writers Rick West and Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.