SCHENECTADY — The Capital Region’s casinos reopened Wednesday, with crowds waiting at Saratoga Casino Hotel and Rivers Casino & Resort at the appointed hour.
The reopenings weren’t complete — multiple features of both facilities will remain closed until the COVID-19 pandemic subsides and the state relaxes restrictions.
But it was the first time casino gambling was available in the Capital Region since March 15, and the fans were happy about it, streaming into Saratoga starting at 2 p.m. and Rivers at 4 p.m.
Ron Sampson of Albany hit both casinos — Saratoga first, then Rivers.
Sitting at the roulette table in Rivers, wearing one of the “Schenectady Strong” T-shirts the casino offered to the first 500 guests, he said he was glad to see the casinos reopen, as they would provide an economic boost to the region.
Also, he just likes to go there, even though his game of choice is out of commission at this point.
“I’m a poker guy,” Sampson said. He won $600 in his first hand on his first visit at Rivers. The poker tables are closed for now and temporarily removed, as the limitations on their use are so great as to make them unprofitable.
So Sampson was looking for something other than card games.
Amsterdam resident Angela Pelneau is a regular at Rivers and was glad to be back Wednesday. She and a floor supervisor exchanged first-name greetings — they recognized each other even with masks — before she sat down at one of the Buffalo Grand slots.
“I waited six months for this,” she said. “I didn’t want to travel.”
The Oneida Indian Nation’s Turning Stone Casino isn’t terribly far from Amsterdam, but a friend went and said there weren’t many plexiglass barriers between seats. So Pelneau waited for Rivers to reopen.
“I’m just glad they’re back open, to have some kind of entertainment after being cooped up for so long,” she said. “They did an excellent job and it looks pretty safe.”
Around 6 p.m. Wednesday, the line to get into Rivers snaked back into the event center, which is unusable for events now and is being used to space out the line.
Sampson said Saratoga Casino seemed fuller by comparison.
Indian casinos reopened months ago in New York state but non-Indian casinos only got word Sept. 3 that they could reopen Sept. 9. Most casinos had already taken extensive steps to prepare for reopening but there was still a scramble to make final preparations when Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the reopening date.
Rivers is still working on bringing its table games into compliance, so they were closed to patrons Wednesday. But the plexiglass shields, all fabricated in-house, were installed on the table games and are expected to go into service soon.
Some changes are readily visible to guests who frequent Rivers: The machines are farther apart, the event spaces are closed, the poker room is now a parlor reserved for older gamblers, the facility is closed from 2 to 8 a.m. for deep cleaning.
There are more subtle details, too, including the little screen on slot machines that turns red and reads “waiting to be sanitized” whenever someone is done playing it, then turns green and reads “this machine has been sanitized” after an employee cleans and resets it.
Some of the details may be lost amid all the plexiglass, hand sanitizer, and light and sound effects.
General Manager Justin Moore pointed to an unremarkable black box on the wall — an airPHX brand air purifier.
“This airPHX, it ionizes the air. So it kills germs, mold, in the air,” he explained.
Moore said 63 percent of Rivers’ roughly 1,050 employees are back on the job after what was, for many, a lengthy layoff. That’s how many workers the facility needs during current, reduced operations, he said, but he hopes to bring more back as the pandemic eases.
Saratoga Casino Hotel General Manager Alex Tucker said the reopening went well: 800 people cycled in or out of the video lottery casino in the first three hours. There was a line backed up for much of that time but once the staff became practiced at the new routine — checking temperatures, taking pictures and so on — the entrance moved more smoothly.
“I think it’s a lot of our regulars,” Tucker said. “It’s been a long six months. We saw a lot of familiar faces.”
Saratoga didn’t lose as much money or have to lay off as many people because it was able to resume harness racing, hotel occupancy and restaurant dining, Tucker said. But those are all ancillary revenue streams to the digital gambling machines.
Resuming their operation allowed Saratoga to bring back 150 of the 401 people it laid off.
Tucker predicted the New York casino industry would be at this level of diminished operation for a while.
All things considered, Wednesday was a good day, he said. Patrons are by now accustomed to masking up and keeping distance between each other. The lines were orderly and the people in them were patient.
“Today went as well as could be expected,” Tucker said.
Statewide, 5,000 people have gone unemployed through the casino shutdown, while local and state governments have missed out on millions in tax revenue.
The pandemic has been hard on Rivers and its employees financially, but it has spared them its worst impact, Moore said — no one on the team has died of the virus. A surprisingly high number of employees — five — died during the shutdown, but from stroke, heart attack and car crash, not COVID.
One of the higher-ranking Rivers employees furloughed this summer was “Harborside Hal” — Hal Wafer, manager of the Sportsbook.
He used the time to go for extended walks and drives with his wife and their dog. He was back at the reconfigured Sportsbook on Wednesday afternoon, getting ready for the reopening.
The Sportsbook is in the odd position of coming off a long layoff to handle betting on activities that had long layoffs of their own and is now at an unprecedented level of activity — major league baseball, basketball, hockey and soccer were all playing Wednesday, and football would start Thursday.
“There’s nowhere to go but up,” Wafer said. “We’re operational and the leagues are operational. You just have it all going at once, which you normally don’t have, so that’s very interesting. The folks are hungry for it, just like we are.”
Brittany Gilman, advertising and social media manager at Rivers, also got the summer off on furlough, which let her catch up on some gardening. Then, with five days’ notice, she had to help bring the casino back to life. She relied heavily on social media and digital communication.
“Now that the word is out we’re really excited just to keep letting people know we are reopen,” she said.
The irony is, she couldn’t do her job too well — Rivers didn’t want a huge crowd coming from all over. The facility is limited to just over 1,000 guests and employees at any one time under the state’s 25 percent rule. So the promotion effort is focused locally.
Moore said Rivers is not expecting to open The Landing Hotel until Sept. 18. Rivers typically draws about 78 percent of its patrons from in state, so it expects a heavily local crowd as it reopens, he added.