Note: This story has been updated to reflect Baltimore City's decision Friday to allow the casino to reopen.
It's been three months since Horseshoe Casino Baltimore temporarily shut its doors, and Randy Conroy still isn't used to the silence.
"I've been in the business almost 20 years — it's never been this quiet," the casino's general manager said Thursday. "It's eerie."
Casinos across Maryland and the rest of the country sat deserted for weeks as the novel coronavirus outbreak prompted social distancing measures and bans on large gatherings. In Las Vegas, where gamblers usually pack the Strip at all hours, some casino operators went scrambling to find the keys as they realized they hadn't had to lock their 24-hour businesses in years.
In recent weeks, many have started to reopen. The Coeur d'Alene Casino in Idaho was the first to return on May 1, followed by properties in more than 20 other states, including Nevada on June 4.
Some Maryland casinos, including the Live Casino and Hotel in Hanover, will open their doors Friday following Gov. Larry Hogan's decision earlier this month to allow them to return at half capacity. On Friday, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. "Jack" Young also announced he would allow the casino to reopen at half capacity.
Still, on Thursday — one day before Young's announcement — there were signs that some life could soon return to the building. Gwen Stefani played over the speakers as Conroy led reporters on a preview tour of the casino, which is getting ready to welcome guests whenever it gets the go-ahead from Young and the city's health department. The mayor has a press conference scheduled Friday to offer the latest update on Covid-19 in the city.
Conroy maneuvered past construction workers putting the finishing touches on fresh tiling as he showed off newly installed hand sanitizing stations and socially distanced blackjack tables on the gaming floor. The casino has used the time off to finish a few upgrades, such as shampooing and disinfecting the carpets and adding a fresh coat of paint to the walls.
Conroy said he and one other employee spent six weeks personally cleaning 1 million gaming chips.
The casino looked to other Caesars Entertainment properties for guidance as it shaped its own rules for staff and customers, he said.
Read our report on how casinos' losses during the Covid-19 shutdown will trickle down to communities nearby.
When Horseshoe is allowed to reopen, employees and visitors will be required to wear masks inside the building and have their temperatures read using thermal cameras. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or above will not be permitted to enter. Staff stationed at the entrance will count the number of guests entering the building to ensure that no more than 3,400 people — half the casino's 6,800-person occupancy — are inside at once.
On the floor, only about half of the casino's 2,100 slot machines will be available to play. Conroy said slots, previously cleaned once a day, will now be disinfected every four hours. Gamblers can also grab sanitizing wipes from buckets scattered throughout the casino to wipe down machines before use.
Tables for blackjack, craps and other games will have their own social distancing requirements. The six-seat tables will be open to just three players, who will have to sanitize their hands before sitting down to play. Conroy said the casino will clean its gaming chips each night using a new sanitizing system.
One standby that will be missing, at least to start, is poker. Conroy said the game, usually played at tables of nine people, isn't as attractive under socially distanced conditions.
"Generally the customers and the casinos like full tables," he said. "With just three to four people at a table, the financial dynamics don't work very well and it's not as exciting for customers."
For now, Horseshoe's poker room is filled, instead, with cleaning products and personal protective equipment. Conroy said the casino has a quarter-million gloves, a three-month supply of hand sanitizer and enough masks to pass out to customers who forget theirs at home.
For food, Horseshoe's Marketplace food court will open when the casino does, and Gordon Ramsay Steak, an upscale steakhouse from the celebrity chef, will be open for service on Fridays and Saturdays to start.
Though Horseshoe's opening will trail behind casinos like Live, which reopens Friday for its rewards cardholders and June 29 to the general public, Conroy said he's hopeful that customers will quickly return to Baltimore when they are allowed. He predicted the casino will see more than half its usual business, even operating at half capacity, due to pent-up demand. Horseshoe plans to bring back 60% of its workforce for the initial reopening, and then continue to add to staffing levels as needed.
Because more than 1,200 of Horseshoe's workers have been on furlough since the casino shut down in mid-March, Conroy said he would need four to six days to retrain staff and prepare them for the return once the city decides it's safe to reopen.