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RI keeping casinos open despite warning over crowds and COVID-19

Coronavirus

LINCOLN, R.I. (WPRI) – While Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo has urged Rhode Islanders to avoid large social gatherings due to the coronavirus outbreak, officials say they will not shutter the two state-owned casinos that generate millions of dollars for the state.

During a news conference Wednesday, Raimondo called for social distancing in an attempt to reduce spread of the new virus that causes COVID-19, a disease that’s killed more than 4,700 people worldwide. She asked residents to avoid gatherings larger than 250 people.

Coronavirus: Latest Headlines, Map, Resources » | Track the number of cases in RI »

“We have one shot to get this right,” Raimondo said. “Everybody, get in the boat and row in the same direction, so we can put a lid on coronavirus.”

But the advice doesn’t appear to apply to the state-owned casinos in Lincoln and Tiverton where hundreds of people can meet to eat, drink and gamble on slot machines and table games.

Twin River, which operates the casinos, announced Thursday it would postpone concerts and other events, but otherwise remain open under aggressive cleaning measures it calls the “Aware and Active Program.”  

“Safety of our employees and guests is of the utmost importance to us,” said Craig Sculos, general manager of Twin River in Lincoln. “The program reinforces the importance of personal hygiene, remaining at home when feeling ill and safe travel practices, among other recommendations.”

The decision underscores a significant challenge facing businesses and public health officials throughout the country: how to curb the spread of the illness while also minimizing harm to the economy.

In Rhode Island, the two casinos are important money makers for both publicly traded Twin River Worldwide Holdings and the R.I. Lottery, representing the state’s third largest revenue source. The state Lottery brings in about $400 million for the roughly $10 billion annual budget.

When asked Wednesday how she squared the recommendation against large gatherings and the continued operation of the two casinos, Raimondo mostly demurred.

“If you’re feeling healthy and you’re able to be in a space where you can have some distance — not prolonged contact — wash your hands regularly, then go ahead and do that,” Raimondo said.

Pressed on the question Thursday, Raimondo spokesperson Josh Block defended the policy.

“The casino is a large facility and we are ensuring they take every precaution to contain the spread of coronavirus,” Block said. “That includes ensuring the availability of soap and hand sanitizer and limiting close-proximity interactions. To the extent that the casino has large events or conferences planned, those will be cancelled or postponed.”

The state and Twin River did not immediately respond to questions about which entity has the authority to shut the casinos down. But such a move would not be without precedent.

Twin River closed the Lincoln casino in January 2015 during a blizzard, marking the first time that had happened since it became a 24/7 operation, according to the Twin River’s then-executive chairman John Taylor Jr.

“We don’t have locks on the door,” Taylor said on WPRI 12’s Executive Suite at the time. “We actually had to go out and get chains to lock the place up.”

The current circumstances, of course, are different than a one-time storm.

The lack of business for such a long time at the casinos would have a dramatic impact on finances. Twin River slot machines generated an average of $920 per minute in profit during the month of January, according to a Target 12 analysis of state revenue data.

R.I. Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott on Wednesday said the best way to protect against the virus at a casino is to wash your hands after using machines. But she also made it clear that any activity — including gambling — comes with some level of risk.

“The most important message is being able to stay home if you are ill,” Alexander-Scott said. “If everyone is able to do that, you can enjoy your activities at a casino knowing that there’s less of a risk of illness occurring.”

Eli Sherman (esherman@wpri.com) is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

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