Commissioners submit second variance request in several weeks
~ by Rick Langenberg ~
The Teller County commissioners are determined to hit a royal flush, when it comes to the region’s reopening economic revival effort following the COVID-19 restrictions.
The betting stakes are high, as the entire gaming community of Cripple Creek has been decimated by the forced closure of all gaming establishments since March 17, a development that has turned the community into a virtual ghost town. This has imposed a big economic hit for the county, with one of the region’s main industries coming to a standstill for nearly three months.
Elected leaders across Teller say the time to keep casinos closed needs to end.
Late last week, the commissioners sent a detailed 20-page supplemental variance request again to the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, Jill Hansaker Ryan. This marks the second variance the county has filed with the CDPHE in the last month. Only this time, the latest request deals solely with one major issue: reopen our casinos now with restrictions.
Teller recently was granted approval, with added restrictions, for most of their reopening requests, with two exceptions: casinos and bars.
Elected leaders and officials concede they can live with the temporary closure of bars, since the area doesn’t have any nightclubs. But the extended closure of the casinos, with a workforce of nearly 2,000 people and many associated businesses, is out of the question, note local leaders.
“We want to be pro-active,” said Marc Dettenrieder, the chairman of the Teller County Commission, following last week’s regular meeting. “We are forging ahead.”
Dettenrieder said many discussions have occurred among county leaders, gaming operators and representatives of the gaming association to devise the best plan to reopen casinos.
At last week’s session, Dettenrieder and his commission peers expressed frustration with the state’s stance regarding the reopening of casinos. “We were definitely disappointed with the casinos and bars being denied (a variance),” said Dettenrieder. “We felt we had a very good safe plan in place.”
Why the Mixed Messages?
More specifically, the commissioners say they are bothered by conflicting messages they are receiving from the state, pertaining to the casino reopening process.
In the original response they received from CDPHE, Ryan stated that “the state will be issuing guidelines around casinos soon.” Most government experts interpreted this as meaning the state wanted to make universal rules for casinos throughout Colorado.
But in a press conference last week, Governor Jared Polis appeared to put the onus back on an agreement between the local counties and CDPHE. “We have gaming in
Colorado in Teller and Gilpin – we look forward to working with the counties. This is not a statewide activity,” said Polis, when asked about the casino reopening by a television reporter last week. “Teller County has expressed an interest in reopening their casinos. They are working with CDPHE on those healthy guidelines for doing that. We will also welcome, when Gilpin County is ready to have that discussion with CDPHE….It is unlikely to be an overriding statewide issue – it will be when counties are ready and have a solid plan in place.”
These statements almost counter previous comments made by the governor regarding the reopening of gaming, and even those of his own CDPHE agency director.
New Variance Focuses Solely on Reopening Casinos
Regardless, the bets are on for Teller leaders to do what they can to reopen local gaming establishments. The commissioners filed another comprehensive plan last week that makes it clear that a business as usual environment won’t occur at Creek casinos.
Their supplemental plan calls for many restrictions, including the mandatory wearing of masks by customers and employees inside casinos, requiring staunch social distancing rules, with protective barriers between slot machines and between employees/customers; imposing a 60 percent reduction in customer limits from the maximum amount of patrons permitted, based on code requirements; the banning of any special events, live performances or public gatherings in gaming establishments of any kind; providing a limited amount of acholic beverages to customers (patrons can’t have any more than one drink, per half hour); having a 60-day moratorium on table games, with one exception (this include craps, roulette and poker); allowing limited blackjack play with only several players per table and no touching of cards; establishing comprehensive COVID-19 training for employees and having intensive surface cleaning policies; following all state guidelines pertaining to the operation of dine-in service at casino restaurants; encouraging virtual meetings among staff members for pre-shift arrangements with employees and having staggering work shifts to avoid traffic problems.
This is just a handful of the new casino requirements. The county previously proposed an exhaustive reopening plan with a strong set of restrictions. Casino operators admit the costs for reopening are staggering, but they are willing to comply with the extra rules to assure the safety of their patrons and employees.
The county’s request is heavily supported by the city of Cripple Creek, which has offered to restart its shuttle transit system and to waive any fees, so money can’t be exchanged between customers and drivers. Much sterner rules will be provided by the casino-based shuttle services, such as Ramblin’ Express.
In a letter by the Cripple Creek City Council, elected leaders noted, “It is very important to our city, Teller County and the entire Pikes Peak region that the gaming industry be allowed to reopen,” said the council, who submitted a letter of support for the county’s latest request. They stated they believe the casinos can reopen in safe and responsible manner.
Previous estimates indicated the state’s casino industry combined may have already lost close to $200 million, as a result of the extended closure action.
The commissioners wanted to file a supplemental variance request to get ahead of the curve in what most experts are predicting a bombardment of variance requests, at the beginning of June. The governor is expected to lift the safer-at-home restrictions, but possible add new rule adjustments.
Already, more than 40 variance bids have been submitted to the state.