Closing a gaming establishment isn’t as easy as locking the doors

The casino closures that swept through the United States were entirely unprecedented. Never before had an entire hospitality industry been shut down overnight. While we don’t know when Americans will be free to gamble in casinos once more—or, indeed, what casino operations will look like when casinos reopen—the simple fact that casinos are closed gives us plenty to think about.

Closing a casino, even a small one, isn’t as simple as turning off the lights and locking the doors. Ditto for hotels and cruise ships.

While, for security reasons, representatives of casino and cruise operators don’t like to comment on the record about their specific staffing and shutdown procedures, there are certain patterns that hold true across the industry.

The word closing is a bit of a misnomer. Of course, the doors are closed to paying customers, but neither ships nor resorts shut down entirely. And they are never truly left alone—the skeleton crew that’s left behind is just that, the people who provided the structure needed to keep the ship operational.

A cruise ship in “shutdown” mode boasts a crew of about 250—that’s less than 17 percent of its usual complement of 1,500. Generally, those remaining aboard include bridge officers, fire patrol, the cleaning crew, and a few cooks to feed those still aboard.

Cruise ship life boats
Cruise ships began shutting down operations Mid-March and have been idle since

And the ships don’t necessarily stay in port. In the port of Miami, ships are cycling in and out of dock. Periodically, they tie up to empty their bilge tanks and take on provisions, then return to sea so that another ship can replenish itself.

Not all ships, however, are on standby. The crisis has stranded tens of thousands of crew members who can’t get home because of political restrictions or logistical challenges. Without passengers on board, it is an easier task to maintain safe social distances, but, as the shutdown lengthens, some ships are sailing around the world, dropping off non-essential crew at their home port.

Needless to say, cruise ship casinos are locked down tight, with perhaps one manager remaining on board for compliance purposes.

Cruise casinos spend a fair amount of time in shutdown mode—when passengers have disembarked and when the ship is within territorial waters—so staff is used to closing them down. They certainly have plenty of practice. Still, many newer electronic systems aren’t designed to be turned off for extended periods, so they may be turned back on and rebooted regularly to avoid malfunctions and other unforeseen issues.

That’s not the case for brick-and-mortar casinos in most of the United States, as they usually do not close. Nevada casinos, for example, had never all closed their doors since the re-legalization of commercial gambling in 1931. While they stopped gambling for a few select events—marking the deaths of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 were two of the most recent—there has never been a time when casinos were forced to lock their doors. For the earlier “closures” casinos simply stopped their table games and advised customers not to play their slot machines. (Since many of these machines were still mechanical, they couldn’t be easily “turned off”).

Las vegas strip sign

The current pandemic-related closures, however, required all casinos to not only stop taking bets, but to completely shut down and deny entrance to the public. 

All casinos have doors, but some, before March, had never closed them. Again, Nevada casinos have had an unprecedented lucky streak: In the past 89 years, no natural disasters have forced widespread closures. The closest has been when fire or power outages have rendered a resort unable to safely host visitors. But casinos in other jurisdictions have been shut down by hurricanes, floods, and blizzards. Sometimes, it’s as simple as locking the doors and ensuring that employees are able to get home safely. But when the casino’s physical plant is threatened with severe damage—as many casinos were when Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the Gulf Coast in 2005—more extreme measures, including the evacuation of the casino’s cash reserves, may be taken.

Barring those kinds of dramatic heroics (one could imagine a pretty good action movie involving millions of dollars of casino cash, an advancing super-storm, and a gang of miscreants looking to hijack the money), casino shutdowns are, above all, orderly. Each jurisdiction has precise rules about what casinos must do to secure their cash and gaming equipment in the event of a shutdown, even a temporary one. Like always, nothing is left to chance. 

Nevada gaming operators officially learned that they would be shutting down on March 17, when Gaming Control Board chairwoman Sandra Douglass Morgan informed the casinos that their operations would be “temporarily suspended.” The order dictated that all gaming devices, machines, tables, games, and any equipment related to gaming activity would have to shut down by that midnight. 

Gaming operators (including not just casinos but also slot route operations and other smaller gaming providers) were instructed to follow the procedures for casino shut downs and changeovers. In broad brush strokes, casinos have to plan for security coverage of gaming areas, inventory chips, tokens, and cash, and, above all, continue to comply with their Minimum Internal Control Standards, the basic operating procedures that casinos agree to abide by in exchange for the privilege of conducting operations. 

Even though the March closure happened relatively quickly compared to the months of lead-time a casino staff would have to prepare for a scheduled closure or sale to new owners, casinos were cautioned that they still had to adhere to their procedures for safeguarding their assets, including money in cages, slot booths, change banks, count rooms, drop boxes, slot machine currency acceptors, and credit instruments, chips and tokens, and safe deposit boxes. Additionally, the computer systems needed to manage casino systems must be kept secure—a wise precaution when hackers, socially distancing like the rest of us, presumably have more time to attempt incursions.

As with a ship, casino resorts maintain a skeleton crew of key executives, security and surveillance personnel, and members of the engineering team who can keep the property in working order. Even without guests, constant maintenance and upkeep is needed.

So, while there wasn’t much precedent in some states for casinos to close, a combination of existing protocols and experience gained from past shut downs has helped operators to close their doors while not jeopardizing their regulatory and fiduciary responsibilities. 

Even though guests can’t stroll a cruise ship deck or sit down at a slot machine, both ships and casinos are being carefully tended, waiting for the day when they will be open for business once more.



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