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It had the look of a good time, if these were normal times.
On Thursday, long lines snaked outside of the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Sacramento at Fire Mountain in Wheatland, about 41 miles away from the state capital.
The reopening of this popular spot on the outskirts of Yuba County after a two-month closure to quell the spread of the coronavirus was a green-light go for a flood of people. Everyone, it seems, was eager to unshelter, to gamble and socialize without 6 feet of distance.
“Oh man, it’s about time we can really live because it should be up to us to do what we want, not government people or media who make a lot of this virus stuff up,” said Mark Ellings of Sacramento while hustling through a packed parking lot to be a part of the action.
The scene here also offered a striking view of risks beyond losing your shorts at the craps tables. For every group of those in their 20s, 30s and 40s, there were equal amounts of those much older, up to their 80s.
Some of that older crowd inched into the casino with the assist of a family member or friend, with staffers reminding, “Please, everyone, 6 feet apart, even if you’re with the same party.”
Some camped out by the hour at slot machines, rejuvenated by their element. The mandate for everyone inside to wear a mask is designed to help prevent the spread of the respiratory disease that has battered the economy and claimed more than 93,000 American lives, with more than 1.5 million reported national cases.
While the casino mandated visitors wear masks, face coverings were pulled down to necks to allow for smoking and drinking.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino employees wore neutral masks and light blue gloves. They were friendly, though more than one raised their eyebrows at watching patrons yank down masks to smoke.
Customers had their temperatures taken as they entered the casino. They were told to remove their masks before that temperature check — and then a few feet later, patrons were reminded, sometimes sternly, to put the masks back on: “Sir! Your mask!”
The Cafe part of the casino was lightly attended early Thursday. It was a well-sanitized spot. Servers regularly wiped down bar and table tops and chairs, but this was not a common practice in the heat of the casino.
Slot machines, game buttons and cards were not regularly wiped down. To do so, one patron argued, would interrupt the action. But there were breaks in the action to sanitize. Plexiglas shields were in place at service windows, card tables and host stands.
Hard Rock Hotel & Casino was the first chip to fall for gaming outlets to resume action. Red Hawk Casino in Placerville plans to reopen June 1.
A spokesperson for the Yuba County Health Department declined to comment on the Hard Rock opening because the casino sits on Native American land.
“The Hard Rock Casino operates under a sovereign status, and its visitors come from all over northern California. Our health officer will not be weighing in, as other important matters are currently commanding her attention, including work to establish a second state-sponsored COVID-19 testing site in the Yuba-Sutter region,” a county spokesperson said in an email.
The casino is back in business despite the pleas from Gov. Gavin Newsom to wait until Phase 3 of his phased reopening of the state economy. That stage, which includes allowing religious services, movie theater openings and other events that draw large gatherings, isn’t expected to go until effect until next month.
The governor wrote, “This virus does not recognize jurisdictional boundaries, and it is in the best interest of public health to move toward reopening in concert.”
Hard Rock president Mark Birtha said the reopen measures earlier this week, “meet and exceed the recommendations of the (Centers of Disease Control and Prevention) and other health officials from Yuba-Sutter counties and the state of California.”
The news release from Hard Rock Hotel & Casino read in the email subject line: “It’s time to come out and play!”
The email detailed the precautions “to protect the health and safety of our guests and team members with the implementation of our new Safe and Sound program.”
Thunder Valley, Red Hawk announced opening dates
The reopening served to halt the economic hit taken by the casino. Industry executives have said the nine-week pandemic shutdown crushed the state’s tribal casinos, which generate some $8 billion in annual revenue and provides the majority of the tribes’ income.
Now the industry is gradually reopening amid signs that Newsom — who doesn’t have the legal authority to keep the casinos closed — is working to find common ground with the tribes.
The Sacramento area’s largest casino, Thunder Valley outside of Lincoln, said on its website it will open its doors June 8 — a date that spokesman Doug Elmets said was suggested by Newsom.
“The June 8th reopening puts Thunder Valley in line with the governor’s recommendation,” Elmets said. He said leaders of the United Auburn Indian Community, which owns Thunder Valley, spoke directly with Newsom.
The tribe “has a long-established, positive, productive government-to-government relationship with the state and with Placer County,” Elmets said. “It was very important to the tribal council that they consider the governor’s recommendation.”
Meanwhile, Red Hawk Casino near Shingle Springs, which had been scheduled to reopen June 1, announced Thursday it was pushing the date back a week, to the same date as Thunder Valley.
It wasn’t clear if the Shingle Springs Band of Miwok Indians, which owns Red Hawk, held a similar conversation with Newsom. The tribe said in a press release that it delayed the opening “based on the latest and updated public health information, and to ensure the safest possible environment for its employees and guests.” A spokeswoman for the casino wasn’t immediately available for comment.
The Sacramento area’s three other tribal casinos — Cache Creek, Jackson Rancheria and Harrah’s Northern California in Amador County — haven’t announced reopening dates.
At least one major Sacramento Valley casino, Rolling Hills in Tehama County, reopened Thursday.
In Southern California, three casinos in San Diego County have opened and three more plan to open Friday: Pala, Valley View and Harrah’s Resort Rincon. The Agua Caliente casinos in the Palm Springs area also plan to open Friday.