It may have been exactly what the towns of Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, Colorado, may have dreamed about. Sunday. Blue Skies. Summertime heat. The trifecta for luring visitors from their homes for the short drive to the metro area’s closest gambling meccas or Teller County’s Cripple Creek was in play for the weekend. But no one could have bet on an invisible, deadly virus that transformed these three gambling hamlets into upscale ghost towns on Sunday or for any of the previous three months. But the bacterial curse---COVID-19---that created the silent Spring for gamers is over, for now.
The towns open up again today. Early. 8:00 a.m. But it won’t be quite the same. “There will be no table games,” said David Farahi, owner of Blackhawk’s Monarch Casino. No poker or blackjack, only slot machines. But reopening the doors that have been padlocked for what seems like forever, is better than nothing. “I would say that the majority of people enjoy the slots,” said Farahi.
Since mid-March, when Colorado Governor Jared Polis ordered the state’s bars and restaurants closed over the coronavirus, Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek have been shuttered. Workers in the towns---along with the state’s estimated 240,000 bar and restaurant staffers---have been furloughed or released altogether.
The reopening doesn’t mean that the coronavirus is gone, only that it’s better understood and that a bit of caution and common sense---including the use of masks---about prevention should remain in place. “The Colorado Gaming Association has spent the last several months developing guidelines and best practices for reopening casinos in a manner that is focused on creating a safe and health gaming environment for our customers and employees,” said Peggy O’Keefe, head of the association. “We worked very closely with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, the Division of Gaming and the counties,” she said.
Neither Farahi nor O’Keefe could speculate on crowds that may return to the mountain town casinos. But guidelines set by the Governor and state health will mean that, with no table games and rules limiting occupancy, they will certainly be smaller.
The Colorado Department of Public Health will limit casino occupancy to 50 percent of capacity that is allowed by fire codes, or 175 people in certain indoor spaces. All customers, along with staff, will be screened for the virus and social distancing markers---six-foot barriers that have become the norm in most places of business---will be mandated.
The scheduled June 17th opening will also give operators of the casinos in Black Hawk and Central City a chance to work out any wrinkles that three months of darkness have created.
Limited stakes gaming has been legal in Colorado since 1991 though there have been numerous changes since. When gaming became legal in Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek, bets were limited to $5. Amendment 50, which was approved by state voters in 2009, allowed for higher minimum bets---now set at $100---along with the addition of more casino games and longer hours.
The coronavirus has dealt a significant blow to the state and, especially the counties in which gaming is the core contributor to coffers. Colorado has mandated that 12 percent of revenues generated by gaming go to Gilpin and Teller counties. According to a 2019 American Gaming Association report, the three towns generated $842 million dollars in the various games, up nearly two percent from the previous year.
The reopening can’t come soon enough for the towns. Gilpin County Commissioner Ron Engels told The Denver Post that since the shutdown, the towns have been hit hard and opening will be “an incredible relief.”
A three-week period of adjustment will be in place before any table games are reconsidered for gamers and visitors. A coronavirus spike would surely scuttle any expansion.
Being dark for three months has been a losing bet for Colorado’s nearly 40 casinos. They missed the Memorial Day crowd, traditionally one of their biggest days of the year. But, if all goes well, they may partially recoup their losses with July 4th and Labor Day still ahead. Either way, operators will be doing their best to make visitors feel as welcome as ever, including serving the meals that lured many to the towns. “Casinos are able to open restaurants and are working with state and local health officials to ensure all protocols are in place,” said O’Keefe.
Black Hawk, Central City and Cripple Creek casinos may seem bigger if only because of the state’s mandated smaller capacities. But it won’t change anyone’s luck. There will still be winners and losers. But a good word-of-mouth review from visitors, along with a flat-line on coronavirus, could boost visitor numbers.
On good days during peak summer season, as many as 20,000 people flooded into Blackhawk and Central City, including an estimated 6,000 workers. Most went for the gaming though the town’s rich historic legacies also brought their share of visitors. Central City, after all, was once said to be ‘the world’s richest square mile in the world.’
Mid-March 2020, which now seems like an eternity ago, changed the world. Still, like the gamblers they host each day, operators are flush with confidence that reopening, while not covering all their losses, will at least get them closer to a break even mark.
There aren’t any special plans for greeting the town’s and casino’s expected crowds, said Farahi, except “with a big smile.”
The opening will also start money moving into Gilpin County coffers.