Throngs of Players and Visitors Celebrate Reopening of Cripple Creek Casinos

Big Crowds Expected to Frequent Gaming Establishments Throughout The Week

~ by Rick Langenberg ~

The big gambling reopening day has finally arrived, after weeks of speculation.

On Monday morning, nearly all Cripple Creek casinos lit up with ringing slots, ending a nearly three-month hibernation, prompted by the coronavirus international pandemic, which has paralyzed the national, regional and local economy.

Gone is the ghost town look that has plagued Cripple Creek and much of southern Teller since March 17.

In some ways, the scenes conjured  up memories of the initial opening of gaming in Cripple Creek in Oct. 1991, with big lines and anxious and curious faces, as many patrons didn’t know what to expect.

But for gamblers and visitors, it was anything but a business as usual environment, as all casinos now  operate under stringent requirements, with strict social distancing rules and the absence, at least temporarily, of all table game activity, including  blackjack, poker, craps and roulette. That fact alone takes more than 50 table games out of play throughout the city. Plus, gamblers can expect to use only about half of the gaming community’s assortment of 3,510  betting machines due an absence of slot chairs or available devices. This reduction in devices, coupled with serious crowd limitations of only 175 people per building, could lead to occasional big lines, bringing back memories of the first week of limited stakes gaming nearly 30 years ago.

Patrons and casino employees  must wear masks and keep a distance of six feet away from each other, unless they are family members. They also must pass a  brief screening exam at restricted casino entrances.  The patrons’ actions will be closely monitored by casino personnel, trained in coronavirus precautions.  A laundry list of new rules exists for gaming establishments.

But for local business leaders, the casino reopening, viewed as one of the key centerpieces of local economic stability, is being warmly welcomed.

“We are very excited and anxious,” said Eric Rose, the general manager of Century Casino Cripple Creek. “We are prepared and are expecting big crowds.”

Similar sentiments are voiced  by Matt Andrighetti, general manager for the Wildwood Casino.  “We are very excited. This has been a strain on the whole industry being closed for this long. It is new for everyone.”

Both Andrighetti and Rose are having their respective casinos adjust to the social distancing requirements by limiting slot chairs.

One of the big unknown questions with the new rules deals with family members or couples and those players who are close friends.

Other casinos, though, have invested much money into plexiglass dividers between machines that are right next to each other. That is a plan being favored by Bronco Billy’s Casino, which is looking at ways to maximize the use of the devices it currently has, according to reports in The (Colorado Springs) Gazette. Also, Billy’s plans to still use the Christmas Casino, originally slated for permanent closure. The Christmas Casino is slated for reopening on Friday afternoon.

Local casino operators say they plan to make changes in their current restaurant operations, with the prospects of more outdoor dining opportunities.

Safety at All Costs

Whatever COVID-19 precaution route is pursued, casino operators emphasize they plan to  monitor safety at all costs. “There is a strong incentive to operate safely,” said Andrighetti, a 20-year-plus veteran of the Colorado gaming industry.

He notes that if so many new coronavirus cases develop, the variance the county received for the casinos to reopen could be yanked, or more serious controls could be required.

If the casinos have to close again, that could become a death toll for some establishments, according to gaming insiders.  The Wildwood general manger admitted that the latest three-month closure put the finishing touches on some casino companies across the country.

And no one denies the fact that the casinos are operating with one-hand tied behind their back. “Based on research I have done, we may be one of the few jurisdictions in the country to not allow any table games,” said Andrighetti. But even with no table games, Andrighetti said the Wildwood is recalling close to 100 percent of their original workforce, as many other duties will occur with the associated safety requirements.

Local casinos have invested big time into top sanitation and sterilization equipment and personal protection devices. The Wildwood general manager said the cost of much of this equipment has experienced a five-fold price increase since the coronavirus epidemic struck.

Many of the local casinos saw remnants of renewed life when major casino locales around the country started reopening. A few key casino operators said they started getting their staff retrained for several weeks as they got a real close glimpse at the obstacles their establishments would face.

A Great Boon for Teller County

The casino reopening bell was also sounded off last week by the Teller County commissioners, who played a role in the reopening bid. “We are only 72 hours away from the opening of the casinos in Cripple Creek,” said Teller County Commissioner Norm Steen, at Thursday’s morning regular meeting. “We are pleased to be part of the process.”

Steen said the commissioners have been bombarded with emails and calls, thanking them for their actions in submitting several variance requests to the state, in an effort to reopen all local businesses in Teller County.

Commission Chairman Marc Dettenrieder stated that the county actually submitted three requests to the director of the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment, Jill Hansaker Ryan.

At last week’s meeting, he lauded the strong collaboration that occurred among elected leaders, the gaming operators, the gaming association and state officials, in handling the casino reopening scenario. The reopening of Creek casinos emerged as the real jackpot strike county leader longed for.

The third variance letter, which was submitted on June 3, turned out to be the gaming winner. That’s when the commissioners, at the request of local gaming operators, agreed to sweeten their offer to provide upmost safety precautions by taking all table games, even blackjack, off the table. “We had heard that could be a sticking point,” admitted Andrighetti, who said that the “no table game” offer was supported by the Creek gaming operators. Also, he said the local operators all agreed to open at the same time, June 15 at 10 a.m.

As a result, Cripple Creek has won the race to reopen Colorado casinos by a couple of days. The casinos in Gilpin County are expected to open tomorrow (June 17).

Device Fee Waiver Expected

The Cripple  Creek casinos also are expected to make another appeal to the city of Cripple Creek for a fee break. They are expected to ask for a device fee break for the first two weeks of June.

A decision on this request will be made by the Cripple Creek City Council Wednesday evening. Already, the city has granted the casinos a combined total of a little more than $600,000 in fee breaks. City leaders stated that it wasn’t fair to assess these fees, when the casinos were forced to shut down.

Altogether, the city is expected to take a $2.2 million hit from coronavirus-induced closures. They hope to get some money back from the CARES Act (Coronavirus Aid Relief and Emergency Security Act).

At last week’s meeting, County Administrator Sheryl Decker estimated that the entire pot of CARES money for the local area, including communities and nonprofits impacted by the epidemic, could reach the $2.1 million level.  How this money will be allocated still hasn’t been determined.