ALBANY — Casino workers rallied outside the state Capitol on Thursday, hoping to convince state officials to reopen the gambling halls they ordered closed five months ago as an infection control measure.
Casinos remain closed even as other high-traffic businesses such as gyms and restaurants have been allowed to reopen; more than 5,000 casino workers are unemployed across upstate New York.
Speakers noted seeming incongruities in this policy, including that casinos in neighboring states are back in operation and not causing problems, and that Indian casinos in New York state have reopened.
They also noted that big-box retailers that attract more people in a day than casinos, yet the big stores were allowed to remain open through the pandemic with more people passing through and fewer precautions in place than casinos would have.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who engineered and led the state response to the crisis, previously has explained the reason for this: Retailers of food and critical items are essential to life, while casinos are not.
This was a sore point at the rally, with attendees’ signs and organizers’ speeches making the point that their jobs are essential to them.
“We are the essential workers for our homes,” said Valerie McIntyre, table games supervisor at Del Lago Casino Resort & Casino in the Finger Lakes region.
“We are essential for our families, and our communities, and to the economy, and our state,” said Robin Torr, hotel front desk manager at Tioga Downs Casino Resort in the Southern Tier.
“Essential” is generally used to refer to life-saving, life-preserving and key quality-of-life services, and McIntyre later clarified that the casino workers weren’t putting themselves in the same category as nurses and police.
“I get it,” she said. “What I’m saying is we are essential to our families — when we cannot pay our bills we become essential.”
Thursday’s rally was about hope, McIntyre added, because after five months out of work many casino employees are under increasing financial pressure.
Tom McOwen, table games manager at Rivers Casino & Resort in Schenectady, said unemployment insurance does not replace his full income. His 2-year-old son has been ecstatic to have dad home every day, but the fun times don’t pay the bills.
“I know [Cuomo] says casinos aren’t essential but we believe every job is essential to well-being,” he said.
For him and his fiancee, he continued, “It’s been a struggle. You have to pick and choose what you pay.”
McOwen also alluded to the larger picture: “An economy can’t get up and going again until all the jobs are back.”
The shuttered non-Indian casinos in New York state employ more than 5,000 people and generate more than $1 billion a year in taxes, organizers said.
Central New York was heavily represented among the several dozen casino workers rallying Thursday, with contingents from Del Lago, Tioga Downs and Vernon Downs on hand.
But Rivers employees also attended.
Management of the Schenectady waterfront attraction said via email: “While Rivers Casino & Resort Schenectady was not involved in the planning of the rally, we certainly understand and appreciate the concerns of the casino workers. We are prepared to reopen as soon as the state grants us permission. Rivers Casino has developed a comprehensive reopening plan that addresses crowd management, cleanliness and disinfection, air quality and circulation, monitoring, isolation, and social distancing to provide the safest environment possible for guests and team members.”
McOwen said the casino has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on upgrades to the ventilation system to better control germs when the facility reopens.
The two Capital Region casinos — Rivers and Saratoga Casino Hotel — have the backing of local officials in their efforts to reopen. Saratoga Springs and Saratoga County approved messages of support this week and the Schenectady County Legislature also is endorsing reopening.
The calls to reopen casinos and the criticism of their continued closure are not new.
State officials previously have responded that New York is reopening its economy in stages when science and infection data indicate that it is safe for a particular industry or sector to reopen. They said the state is doing the same with casinos, and will allow them to reopen when it is certain reopening can be done safely.
In the meantime, casino employees are without work.
Torr, the Tioga hotel manager, said central New York casinos are mostly in rural areas without many job opportunities, and those hiring managers who are looking for new employees are leery about taking on idled casino workers, for fear they will quit and go back to their old jobs once casinos finally reopen.
The problem is especially pronounced in her own career field, she added, because the struggling hotel industry has been cutting jobs rather than hiring.