People had their face masks on, vaccination status proof out, and cash at the ready when Club Regent Casino opened its doors Wednesday morning.

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People had their face masks on, vaccination status proof out, and cash at the ready when Club Regent Casino opened its doors Wednesday morning.

The Winnipeg location, along with McPhillips Station Casino and Shark Club Gaming Centre, welcomed its first customers since October, when Manitoba mandated gaming sites close as part of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

The casinos were first shut down in March 2020, reopened in July, only to lock their doors again three months later.

Bob Hooper, 83, stood in line for a half-hour before Club Regent's 10 a.m. opening.

"It's good to be here," he said. "It's a change, and for us retirees, it's nice to have some place to go rather than stare at four walls in the apartment."

Pre-pandemic, Hooper said he would visit the casino once a week. He resorted to watching TV, walking the dog and getting coffee at McDonald's to pass time over the last 16 months.

He had a card showing his proof of double vaccination in hand as he waited outside Club Regent.

To enter the casino, patrons must unmask to show their face and flash their ID at security. The guards scan proof of double vaccination on smartphones and physical cards. Then, customers pull up their masks and look into a camera before being waved through by a second set of staff.

Casino employees don't need to be vaccinated, however, though Manitoba Liquor & Lotteries Corp. has previously stated it strongly encourages its workers get their shots. The Crown corporation did not provide comment by print deadline Wednesday.

Marie Tomchuk and June Lueck chatted as they stood in line, socially distanced from strangers.

The sisters said they appreciate how proof of double vaccination is needed to enter.

"There's still that lingering uncertainty," Lueck said of visiting casinos.

However, the sisters felt safe enough to go out, and were looking forward to playing Fireball, their favourite slot machine.

Inside the building, staff wiped down machines not in use, as masked patrons pressed their luck, feeding bills into machines as they would pre-pandemic.

Al Calvo stopped in to buy tickets for the Winnipeg Goldeyes' upcoming return to the city. Casino reopenings are a sign of much needed normalcy, he said.

Customers started filing into South Beach Casino & Resort (Scanterbury) and Sand Hills Casino (Carberry) on July 17. It was the first day casinos could reopen, according to the province's July 14 pandemic restriction plan announcement.

"We've noticed that there was clearly a lot of pent-up demand," said Victor da Mata, South Beach general manager.

Calls to the gaming centre increased with the population's rate of vaccination, he said — people were itching to get back.

In the latter half of July, the casino, hotel and restaurant have neared capacity often, da Mata said. Casinos are allowed to operate at 50 per cent capacity under current public health regulations.

The goal is to not close again, da Mata said.

"Every time you close, it's another hit," he said. "Just imagine you go grocery shopping, and then you let your groceries sit for a few months, and you have to throw it all out and rebuy it. There's no difference for restaurants or bars or casinos."

Manitoba's second phase of reopening, which allows casinos to operate again, began two weeks earlier than planned. Restrictions eased as 75 per cent of Manitobans age 12 and older received their first dose, and upwards of 50 per cent got their second.

gabrielle.piche@freepress.mb.ca

Gabrielle Piché

Gabrielle Piché
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Gabby is a big fan of people, writing and learning. She graduated from Red River College’s Creative Communications program in the spring of 2020.

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