PINE BLUFF -- A stream of patrons were lined up at 10 a.m. and ready to go when the Saracen Casino Annex in Pine Bluff reopened Monday.
Visitors had their identification verified, their temperatures checked, and they were asked to answer three health screening questions and to apply hand sanitizer before being admitted onto the gambling floor.
"Everyone, employees and guests, are required to wear a face mask inside," said Carlton Saffa, Saracen Development project manager. "If they don't have one, we'll provide them with one, but they must be worn at all times inside the building, and social distancing requirements must be observed."
Casinos became the latest industry to receive clearance to reopen under the first phase of the state's relaxation of restrictions that were imposed in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced earlier this month that casinos would be allowed to reopen Monday with restrictions.
Southland Casino Racing in West Memphis and Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort in Hot Springs also reopened Monday.
Saffa said physical preparations for the casino annex in Jefferson County included installation of barriers between slot machines, the deactivation of some machines, and the placement of markers on the floor to aid social distancing efforts. Employees also spent several hours over the weekend doing drills at the entrance to ensure patrons could be moved through the line efficiently.
To aid in social distancing, Saffa said, slot machines next to high-traffic areas, such as the cashier's cage, ticket redemption kiosks, and the Player's Club kiosk, were deactivated. A row of machines leading to the cashier's cage also has been deactivated to allow more room for people to maintain a 6-foot interval without crowding others. Two of the four windows at the cashier's cage also were closed down to avoid crowding there.
"This is the only place where a player will be allowed to drop their mask, and that's just for the few seconds it takes to get a good picture of their face with one of the cameras," Saffa said. "Otherwise, all patrons will be masked at all times, as will all of our employees."
Patrons also are encouraged to make liberal use of hand sanitizer.
"We've placed hand sanitizer stations along the walls everywhere there's a blank space," Saffa said. "We had some installed before we initially opened, but we've installed at least a dozen more, and we're going to encourage everyone to make use of them."
Two employees, Kirstin Ard and Quortney Glover, eyed the entrance just before the doors opened at 10 a.m., each with drink trays balanced on one hand. Both wore face masks and gloves, and while both said they didn't particularly like the masks, they understood they are necessary.
Both were excited to get back to work.
"I'm ready," Ard said. "I've been looking forward to this and wanting to get back to work ever since we shut down."
"Yeah," Glover said. "It's been long enough. We missed each other, and we missed our crowd. It's good to be back."
A third employee walking past the two gave them a small wave.
"Y'all look so cute in your masks," the employee said.
"I don't feel cute," Ard said with a laugh. "I feel claustrophobic."
Reginaldo Ortega of Pine Bluff was one of the first patrons allowed inside, and he quickly took a seat at a video poker machine along the bar. He said he didn't have a strong opinion on how effective the mask requirement would be, but he didn't mind having to wear one.
"I don't usually wear a mask outside," he said. "I think if you've got corona, or if you're going to get it, you've already got it. I don't know that it helps."
Another patron trying his luck at the video poker machines, Ricky Jones of Pine Bluff, was less skeptical about the masks and social distancing protocols and said he was impressed with the measures being taken by the casino.
"I believe it's a good setup," he said. "With everything that's going on, I don't really think it's too early. I mean, everybody else is going back to work, but as long as everyone is covered and taking all of the precautionary measures, I feel like this will work out for the best."
When asked how his luck was going, he said it wasn't too bad.
"I'm just enjoying myself," Jones said. "I'm really happy the place has reopened."
SundayMonday on 05/24/2020