Indiana, Wisconsin casinos open betting with masks, hand sanitizer – while Illinois studies its cards

Cars lined up outside the parking garage and hundreds of people queued up for admission to the Horseshoe when Hoosier casinos got the official green light to resume operations Monday morning. “It was a madhouse,” one employee said.

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Plexiglass partitions separate slot machines at the newly reopened Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, following the coronavirus shutdown. 

Plexiglass partitions separate slot machines at the newly reopened Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, following the coronavirus shutdown.

Provided by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

Masks and hand sanitizer are the name of the game at the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, Indiana.

You’ll have to raise your COVID-19 precautionary stakes by a temperature check for a seat at the table at the Ameristar in East Chicago.

But forget the table, cards and dice altogether at the reopened Potawatomi in Milwaukee; all bets are off except for slot machines at that casino 90 minutes north of Chicago.

As gambling meccas in the region gradually welcome customers back after a three-month coronavirus shutdown, there’s still no clear timeline for Illinois’ 10 casinos to reopen. But a look at casinos in neighboring states make one thing clear: Many bettors aren’t hedging when it comes to the newly reshuffled action — and that could be good news for Gov. J.B. Pritzker as his administration stares down a $2.7 billion state budget deficit.

Cars lined up outside the parking garage and hundreds of people queued up for admission to the Horseshoe when Hoosier casinos got the official green light to resume operations Monday morning.

“It was a madhouse,” one employee said Wednesday afternoon.

Two days later, a milder crowd of at least a few hundred sprawled out across an expansive Horseshoe gaming floor dotted with hand sanitizer dispensers and 6-foot social distancing markers, with some slots shut down along rows of the machines to keep space between gamblers.

Social distancing markers line the floor leading into the newly reopened Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee.

Social distancing markers line the floor leading into the newly reopened Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee.

Provided by Potawatomi Hotel & Casino.

Indiana gambling regulators have capped casinos at half-capacity. Face coverings are required for employees but only recommended for patrons, though there was nary a bare face in the house — at least between cigarette drags, for some bettors.

“It feels good to be back. I missed seeing my friends here,” said Whiting retiree Beth Ann Cole, adding that she wasn’t put off by her first gathering of more than a handful of people in months.

“Everybody’s being really careful and taking it seriously. I feel safer and cleaner here than at the grocery store,” she said.

Nor were COVID-19 concerns keeping many weekday afternoon gamblers away from the Ameristar, where employees checked visitors’ temperatures before allowing them into the casino.

Mark, a bettor from the western suburbs of Chicago who declined to give his full name, said he’d rather have spent his off-day playing blackjack at a casino closer to home in Illinois.

“I’m at a point where I think a lot of people are, which is: Let’s all use common sense, but let’s also start getting back to normal. Be safe about it,” he said.

Executives at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino are aiming for safety as they reopen in Milwaukee — and they’re taking a much more rigid approach than officials in Indiana.

As a tribal casino in a sovereign nation, Potawatomi didn’t need government approval to resume operations, but its June 8 reopening protocol exceeds mandates in many other states.

Gambling is limited to slot machines, with plexiglass panels installed as a barrier between bettors, and guests are required to reserve three-hour windows to use the machines.

No smoking is allowed, capacity is capped at 600 people, hours of operation are cut to 9 a.m. until midnight and temperature checks and face masks are required for all.

“Milwaukee County was a coronavirus hotspot and still is,” CEO and general manager Rodney Ferguson said. “The last thing we wanted to do here was reopen with lax rules in a hotspot zone, have an outbreak and then be forced to close our doors again. We can’t really afford to take that risk, so we’re more on the conservative side.”

Bettors so far have been “receptive” to the changes, and barring a setback, the casino could ease restrictions in the weeks ahead, Ferguson said.

Illinois’ reopening standards are more likely to fall somewhere in the middle, according to casino guidelines set last week by the Illinois Gaming Board. Each casino will submit its own reopening plan for approval from the regulatory agency. Among the baseline requirements: face masks for all and a 50% capacity limit.

While Illinois casinos remain closed indefinitely — operators are hopeful they’ll get clearance with Phase 4 of Pritzker’s reopening plan June 26 – the governor has signaled he’s eager to get gaming revenue flowing again as the coronavirus shutdown wreaks havoc on state finances. Pritzker issued an executive order earlier this month streamlining the process for casinos to begin offering mobile sports betting, which is expected to happen any day.

Casinos raked in more than $470 million from March through June 2019, according to Gaming Board records. About $114 million of that ended up in state coffers, and $27 million going to local governments.

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