October 25, 2020

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Rural casinos bet on reopening

South Beach, Sand Hills welcome gamblers for first time since March 17

JOHN WOODS / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Some terminals remain deactivated to allow for social-distancing measures at South Beach Casino.</p>


Some terminals remain deactivated to allow for social-distancing measures at South Beach Casino.

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The gamble paid off for casinos that chose to open their doors to the public this weekend, as people eager to return were met with a new, socially distanced experience.

While the province’s revised Phase 4 reopening strategy allowed casinos to reopen July 25, the McPhillips Station and Club Regent casinos in Winnipeg and the Aseneskak Casino in Opaskwayak are keeping their doors closed until July 29.

Several casinos outside the city, however, reopened the day they could — both the Sand Hills Casino in Carberry and South Beach Casino and Resort in Scanterbury were open for business Saturday morning.

"We’ve been preparing for this probably since early June, I would say, because we had no date given to us, it was all speculation," South Beach Casino and Resort chief financial officer Victor da Mata said Sunday.

The casino had been "ready for a while" to reopen, da Mata said, and had brought staff back several weeks earlier to train and practise the new sanitary measures required, and staff had been watching Premier Brian Pallister’s announcements regularly to see when they would be able to reopen.

Those looking to try their luck will find themselves entering a very different atmosphere, however — both Sand Hills and South Beach casino have cancelled table games and are operating at 30 per cent capacity.

At South Beach, machines have been moved from the casino area to banquet halls and meeting rooms for additional distancing. Machines that could be moved have been put into an X-formation to keep people apart, and some machines have been shut down so people are unable to sit too close to each other. Formerly self-serve drink machines have switched to an ordering system, catering and banquet services have been discontinued, and regular reminders to maintain social distancing can be heard through the speaker system in the casino.

Safety ambassadors were hired by the casino around three weeks ago and have undergone training to maintain sanitary standards, da Mata said. They wear recognizable red shirts and can provide additional sanitizing measures for guests. While employees are required to wear masks, visitors are not — but complimentary masks are provided.

Opening weekend was "a learning experience" for the casino, da Mata said — Saturday saw people waiting outside of the casino for up to an hour, and water bottles were handed out periodically by staff.

Sunday was noticeably quieter, but still saw a packed house — while there were no lineups, every room in the casino had visitors.

"From a business perspective, of course we want high volume, but it’s challenging when safety becomes your priority over the business, and at this point, safety is the priority," da Mata said.

Grant Graham is staying at the hotel and visited the casino both Saturday and Sunday. He said he wasn’t surprised by the turnout and enjoyed his weekend.

"The only thing is, they’re not paying out that much right now," he joked.

Graham said he felt it was the right time for casinos to return.

"You’ve got to live, you can’t live in your house 24/7," he said. "You have to go out and get groceries and different things, so you might as well enjoy yourself."

Paul and Lori Singh decided to spend the day out of the city together, and while they don’t visit often, they said they were impressed by the additional sanitary measures taken by the casino.

"They took all the poker tables away, the machines are spaced out enough, it’s not crowded in there," Paul said.

Lori typically plays bingo, and said she wasn’t really affected by the restrictions put in place by the casino. Rather, she was happy the restrictions were in place and said neither of the couple had any fear of coming out for the day.

"We missed going out, I think everyone missed going out to have a bit of fun," she said. "I think the city did very well, really well, and people adjusted to (restrictions) quickly."

She echoed Graham’s sentiment regarding deciding to come out opening weekend — the lockdown had been tough, and as long as people were sanitizing themselves and maintaining social distancing, there wasn’t any harm in going out.

"Come out and have fun, enjoy yourself a little bit," she said. "We’ve been stuck inside for four months – just relax."

Da Mata said his advice to anyone with apprehensions about coming back to casinos was simply to not go until those apprehensions were abated.

"If you’re not comfortable, definitely don’t go to the casino," he said.

"Don’t go to the movie theatre, don’t go anywhere if you’re not comfortable. Everyone has to make their own decision. All I can say is that from our perspective, we’re doing everything we possibly can to make our guests and our employees as safe as possible."


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Malak Abas

Malak Abas

Malak Abas is a reporter for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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