Saying that Puerto Rico’s casino operations are abiding by “strict and efficient” security protocols to ward off the spread of the COVID-19 virus, sector executives represented by the Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association sent a letter to island’s Health Secretary expressing concern about another potential closure.
In the letter, the trade group spoke for 16 casinos saying that 10 days after partially reopening their operations following a four-month shutdown, they cannot be to blame for the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Puerto Rico.
“It was surprising to read statements in the media attributed to you saying that Puerto Rico will have to go back to restrictive measures to slow down the pace of COVID-19 contagions,” according to the letter signed by PRHTA Chair Pablo Torres addressed to Health Secretary Lorenzo González.
“It was even more surprising to learn that you would be meeting with members of the economic and health sectors to discuss the future of gyms, movie theaters and casinos — sectors that reopened with the last Executive Order that went into effect Sept. 12 and expires on Oct. 2, which is contradictory to data offered by the Health Department of [cases and deaths] prior to the slight easing of operations for hotels and casinos,” he said.
“We’re concerned that going back to a shutdown is being considered, when there’s no scientific or circumstantial grounds that show that these places are responsible for the spike in cases, based on the same information your agency publishes,” the letter further states.
On Sept. 12, Puerto Rico’s casinos were allowed to reopen, with limited operating hours (from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.) and at a reduced 35% capacity. Casino operators said that prior to the reopening, they had come together to outline safety protocols and required investments, including installing plexiglass dividers at gaming tables and putting up hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the facilities.
Slot machines were reshuffled at some casinos, while others chose to shut down every other one in a same row to establish distance between players. Machines and chips are wiped down after a player uses them.
José González-Espinosa, general manager of the San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino said, “I really feel we’re doing everything possible to reduce the risk to a minimum. The opening has been quite successful, and when you come here you see how well the protocol is in place and how well it has been executed, and how well people are behaving, because people are sticking to the protocol.”
The code that casinos have implemented got the approval from the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., which he said has implemented a “gold standard” of regulations.
“We spent almost twice what we spend in security loss prevention to have people in cleaning areas, guiding guests so they stick to the rules,” González-Espinosa said, adding the hotel has invested $55,000 so far for equipment, sanitizer, “which is part of the new reality.”
A major concern about being in casinos is that they’re enclosed spaces, which expert Epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci has warned against visiting during the COVID-19 pandemic. Those places include closed restaurants and gyms, for example.
However, González-Espinosa said many of Puerto Rico’s casinos are already equipped with oversized air conditioning systems that promote the intake of fresh air and the discharge of used air, which have been in place since smoking was allowed in the entertainment venues.
“The systems are designed so that you have to bring in a specific amount fresh air every every single second. You’re not reusing air,” he said.
Meanwhile, Ismael Vega — who has been a staunch defender of the island’s casino industry during his tenure as general manager of the Casino Metro at the Sheraton Convention Center hotel — said there is no evidence that casinos represent a higher risk of contagion versus grocery stores or enclosed shopping centers.
“Since we reopened, we haven’t had a single case, and we take our client’s temperatures twice before they come into the casino,” he said, adding that no employees have tested positive for the virus either.
Both Espinosa and Vega debunked the perception that the majority of casino clients are older, saying that while they may visit during the day, the general mix of players represents a spectrum of ages.
“It’s the same people you see in Walmart, or in Costco. It’s a fallacy to say that our clients are just the older generation, when 30% of my clients are 60 or older. What happens is that many people see them coming in during the day, but they don’t see that they go home early,” Vega said.
“I’m super concerned that when talks start up about an increase in COVID-19 cases, we’re mentioned, when we just reopened,” Vega said. “Nobody mentions the primaries, the political caravans, and community contagion. They’re not going to solve that spike by closing us down when we just reopened. That argument is for the bleachers, to say they’re doing something, so cases drop.”