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story.lead_photo.caption Ricky Jones of Pine Bluff tries his luck Monday, May 18, 2020, at one of the video poker machines that line the bar at Saracen Casino Annex. Jones was one of the first people through the door that morning. More photos at arkansasonline.com/519casino/. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Dale Ellis) ( Dale Ellis / Dale Ellis)

New restrictions issued by Gov. Asa Hutchinson on bars, restaurants and other facilities licensed to sell alcohol require that those businesses close no later than 11 p.m. to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Those restrictions are to be in place through Jan. 3, under the current order.

However, that order, according to the Department of Finance and Administration, does not apply to casinos, which are allowed to operate from 9 a.m. until 2 a.m. under an order issued in May so that casinos could resume operations on a limited scale.

Carlton Saffa, chief market officer at Saracen Casino Resort, said the exclusion of casinos in that order wasn't an oversight. Nor, he said, was it a matter of casinos being allowed to play by a different set of rules. Saffa said the regulation of gambling operations in Arkansas is different for casinos.

"We are licensed as a casino," Saffa said, "Obviously, we're inclusive of some subsets of hospitality but this property is a gaming facility, just like Oaklawn and just like Southland. Since the onset of covid and the government's first reactions to it, casinos have been regulated uniquely, and we should be."

Saffa said it was his understanding, based upon guidance from the finance department on Thursday, that casinos were not included in that order.

According to Amendment 100, which authorized four casinos in the state, "Casino licensees shall be permitted to sell intoxicating liquor or provide complimentary servings of intoxicating liquor, only for on-premises consumption at the casinos, during all hours in which the casino licensees conduct casino gaming. To that extent, casino licensees shall not be subject to Ark. Code Ann. §3-3-211, which prohibits the sale of intoxicating liquor on Christmas Day, and Ark. Code Ann.§ 3-9-201, et seq. and other applicable Arkansas law requiring the residents of a dry county or city to vote to approve the sale of intoxicating liquor."

However, after receiving a request Friday afternoon from the Health Department to submit a plan for the casino to help further mitigate the spread of covid-19, Saffa said he made the decision to close dine-in restaurant venues and drink service from the casino's bar venues at 11 p.m., but would continue individual drink service to patrons on the gambling floor until the casino closes each day at 2 a.m.

In his response to the Health Department changes, Saffa noted that disposable drinkware and individually wrapped straws would be used, and that social distancing, mask discipline and sanitation protocols would continue to be observed.

Saffa said he was notified Friday evening that the plan addendum he had provided the department had been accepted.

With a normal capacity of 10,000 people, more than 900 employees, an 80,000-square-foot gambling floor, seven restaurants, a sports bar, and plans for a retail shop at some point in the future, Saffa said Saracen is allowed to sell alcohol, not by virtue of a liquor license issued to any one bar contained inside the casino, but by the gambling license issued by the Arkansas Racing Commission.

"Outside of that, we'll continue to do what we have been doing, which is to continue to implement a robust contact tracing protocol," he said. "The casino industry has been asked by the state to participate in contact tracing for all patrons, so thousands of people enter this building every day and every one of their IDs are scanned, so we have a running log of who comes in the building."

Normal drink service during the day is available in several places throughout the casino, including Legends Sports Bar, the Crossroads Bar, and at the bar inside Red Oak Steakhouse.

Mark Lopez, Red Oak Steakhouse sommelier, demonstrates his prowess behind the bar as he prepares drinks Friday afternoon. Food and bar service will close nightly at 11 p.m. following a request by the Arkansas Department of Health, but individual drink service to patrons on the casino gambling floor will continue until the casino closes at 2 a.m. 
(Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis)
Mark Lopez, Red Oak Steakhouse sommelier, demonstrates his prowess behind the bar as he prepares drinks Friday afternoon. Food and bar service will close nightly at 11 p.m. following a request by the Arkansas Department of Health, but individual drink service to patrons on the casino gambling floor will continue until the casino closes at 2 a.m. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Dale Ellis)
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