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Alberta casinos take varying approaches to reducing COVID-19 risk

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WATCH (June 17): Alberta’s Dr. Deena Hinshaw responds to reports of overcrowded businesses and locations not following COVID-19 preventative measures.

Casinos were allowed to open June 12 under Phase 2 of Alberta’s relaunch strategy.

The province has outlined four requirements these kinds of businesses must meet in order to help reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread while operating. However, the exact protocols and methods of meeting these requirements are left up to each individual company to determine and implement.

That has led to some reports of crowded venues, casino patrons not staying two metres apart and game stations not being sanitized between uses.

READ MORE: Las Vegas rolls the dice, reopens 23 casinos with coronavirus measures in place

Alberta Health Services told Global News that as of June 18, there have been two complaints regarding casinos in Edmonton, three complaints about casinos in Calgary and 17 general inquiries about casinos without identifying a specific facility.

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No orders have been issued and AHS has not issued fines since that power rests with police or peace officers.

READ MORE: Albertans who break coronavirus health orders could pay up to $500K fine

Under Phase 2, there are no capacity restrictions but businesses are asked to monitor for physical distancing, space out stations or install physical barriers, supply hand sanitizer for guests, and “regularly clean and disinfect” high-touch surfaces. Table games remain closed. There are no specific rules around cleaning frequency or mandatory mask-wearing.

Under current chief medical officer of health orders, businesses and entities are required to:

  • Implement practices to minimize the risk of transmission of infection among attendees;
  • Provide procedures for rapid response if an attendee develops symptoms of illness
  • Ensure that attendees maintain high levels of sanitation and personal hygiene
  • Comply, to the extent possible, with the Workplace Guidance for Business Owners. This guidance, and any other applicable Alberta Health guidance, can be found at: https://www.alberta.ca/biz-connect.aspx.

“Operators must comply to the extent possible with the guidelines,” said Tom McMillan, communications director with Alberta Health.

In some cases, Alberta’s guidelines provide options for meeting a goal, he said. For physical distancing, for example, the guidelines suggest limiting people who come in, having a staff member at the door or having one-way flow.

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“They don’t have to implement all of these measures but still need to achieve the goal of safety,” McMillan explained.

“The rule for distancing is that if you can’t maintain two metres then you need some other mitigation such as a barrier (like cashiers have) or a mask (like servers and personal service workers have).”

AHS said Public Health Inspectors have been responding to complaints from the public and follow up on critical violations where there is risk of COVID-19 transmission. Inspectors try to work with operators first before taking enforcement action. If there is non-compliance, the inspector would refer the matter to police or peace officers who have the authority to issue a $1,000 penalty for violating the chief medical officer of health’s directives.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: What you can and can’t do during Phase 2 in Alberta

Christian Vincent went to a casino in Calgary the first day it was open. He said the place was packed.

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“I think this was the busiest this casino has ever been,” he said, adding he didn’t see any staff at the front entrance monitoring capacity and physical distancing “wasn’t happening.”

Vincent said he did see a table with hand sanitizer and wipes on it, plastic between slot machines and an employee cleaning the bathroom. He said he didn’t see anyone wearing a mask.

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Vincent said he sat at one machine — with his mask on — for about 40 minutes. There were machines on either side of him, one of which had four different people use it while the other had three, and neither was wiped down between patrons, he said.

“For me, the biggest concern I have is [that] their number one client is senior citizens,” he said.

Vincent said he raised his concerns with staff at the casino, then also notified Alberta Health and Alberta Gaming Liquor and Cannabis.

READ MORE: Province orders Alberta casinos to close amid COVID-19 pandemic

A spokesperson for AGLC said the volume of public inquiries is higher than usual but couldn’t confirm if AGLC has received a call or inquiry about casino concerns specifically.

Heather Holmen said all COVID-19 Public Health Order Violations are regulated by AHS.

“If a licensee is found in violation of any AHS policies or regulations, AGLC may consider a violation under the Gaming, Liquor and Cannabis Act,” she added.

Click to play video 'Alberta movie theatres, entertainment venues not ready for Phase 2 reopening on June 12' Alberta movie theatres, entertainment venues not ready for Phase 2 reopening on June 12
Alberta movie theatres, entertainment venues not ready for Phase 2 reopening on June 12

At the River Cree Resort and Casino, plastic barriers were installed between every slot machine, sanitization stations added and masks supplied to staff and patrons. 

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Marketing director Jayne Behm said the casino more than tripled its cleaning staff, created an “extreme clean team” for wiping down high-touch surfaces and has redeployed employees from other departments (like valet) to walk the floor and remind guests to physically distance. 

READ MORE: Disinfected dice — How Las Vegas plans to reopen

River Cree bought fabric and disposal masks for its staff, Behm said. They’re mandatory for food and drink servers, front-line staff and those working in the cash cage, she added. 

“All hand pays are done at the cash cage now.”

Behm added staff there have masks, Plexiglass has been installed at every station as a physical barrier and the station is to be wiped down in between every guest. She said River Cree is also in the process of implementing a slide tray system so that IDs, cards and cash can be passed through while limiting contact.

The casino has a real-time capacity monitor with sensors at every entrance and a display to let guests know if there’s room for them to enter. It has an occupancy cap to allow for physical distancing, Behm said, but the casino hasn’t had to limit capacity at this point.

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Alberta’s chief medical officer of health was asked twice last week about public health guidelines and casinos specifically. Dr. Deena Hinshaw was asked why Alberta included casinos in Stage 2 while places like B.C. have kept them closed until a later stage.

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She explained that when Alberta was considering which sectors of the economy and services to reopen and in what stage, officials considered how analogous those businesses were to others that had already opened and hadn’t caused many concerns, like shopping malls and retail.

“When we looked at casinos as an option, we looked at the different protocols that had been put forward by that particular group of operators with respect to how the cleaning and disinfection, distancing, and/or barriers could be put in place,” Hinshaw said on Friday.

“And we looked at the types of activities in casinos.

“So, for example, in this stage, we’re not allowing table games to proceed given the fact that there’s more interaction, there’s potentially more chance of transmission. So it is mostly those seated activities that are taking place in casinos with the expectations that operators will follow all of the distancing, the barriers, the sanitization and masking if distancing is not possible.”

She said it’s the same expectation for any operator in any sector that chooses to open at this time.

READ MORE: Hinshaw reiterates Alberta health orders stand as 48 new COVID-19 cases identified Wednesday

“The guidelines set out what is necessary to create safe environments and operators are required by the order that moved us into Stage 2 to have measures in place that protect staff and patrons from infection,” she said June 17.

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“They are required to follow the guidance to the best of their ability.”

“So what I would say with respect to these locations where there are reports of the guidance not being followed, is that those organizations are incurring upon themselves liability, that they’re incurring upon themselves the chance for a large outbreak to happen, and I would encourage them to really consider carefully whether or not they would wish to take that on themselves and especially where there are large groups gathered and masking is not happening and distancing is not happening, that that really does put us all at risk.

“It puts the community at risk.

“So again, it’s something that they would be required to go back and look at the order to determine if they are meeting those four requirements that they are legally required to meet,” Hinshaw said.

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