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Iowa casinos glad to resume operations

Tom Timmons offered a near-perfect sentiment to sum up what kind of existence many of us have been forced to lead since mid-March.

“These past 75 days have been the longest 150 days of my life,” said Timmons, the president and COO of the Wild Rose Casino and Resort group, which operates three casinos scattered across rural portions of Iowa.

Timmons has traversed the state in many capacities in more than three decades in gaming, and the coronavirus pandemic threw him the biggest curveball of his professional career.

From March 16 through the end of May, all of Iowa’s 19 licensed casinos were closed under Gov. Kim Reynolds’ emergency health proclamation. Even when facilities were allowed to re-open June 1, it was with strict safety and half-capacity limitations in place.

But throughout that hiatus and the accompanying financial uncertainties, Timmons and his staffs were hard at work. That labor paid off to the tune of all three Wild Rose facilities being ready to relaunch on that initial reopening day.

“I’ve heard the saying more and more, but this is truly a marathon and not a sprint,” he said. “There was no hurry to be first to open, but a lot of thought and effort went into this for us to be ready to open as soon as possible. We will be there for the long haul, but the main thing is learning how to live with (the virus).”

Wild Rose’s facility in the 4,100-person town of Jefferson about an hour northwest of Des Moines was the first central Iowa casino to reopen its doors. General manager Travis Dvorak, himself once a former card dealer on table games, was excited to finally get back to work.

But he didn’t know what he’d be facing in his 600-person occupancy gaming house — now 300 under current restrictions — with the 700,000-person Des Moines metro population potentially itching to get back to gambling. The state’s largest operator, Prairie Meadows Casino and Racetrack in the Des Moines metro suburb of Altoona, isn’t relaunching until next Monday.

A week ago, Dvorak saw numbers steadily over 200 people throughout the day, but nothing overwhelming for his facility. He did notice a bunch of smiling and grateful faces, too.

“It had the feel of a grand opening, but it was different because it wasn’t about a new product or introducing you to our floor,” Dvorak said. “It was almost like a family reunion. You were there to see customers coming in, hosts taking count and greeting folks, and there were automatically connections being made as we welcomed customers back.

“It was like seeing friends and relatives that you hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a great feeling, because we realized if you’re loyal to your customers, you’ll find out they are loyal to you and that they like you.”

The changes inside the casino were modest — switching off alternate machines, plexiglass barriers in place where necessary, limited food and beverage and a manually operated counting system to monitor guests coming and going in the facility. The casino’s DraftKings-linked sportsbook will not reopen until athletics makes more of a comeback, Dvorak said, although kiosks for sports wagering remain operational on the casino floor.

However, the William Hill-managed sportsbook was operational at Lakeside Hotel Casino in Osceola, which sits 40 minutes south of Des Moines and less than an hour from the Missouri border along U.S. Interstate 35. Lakeside general manager Dave Monroe said the out-of-state traffic he normally receives justified opening the physical sportsbook, even with minimal staff and reduced hours at first.

Monroe has instituted temperature checks for all entrants into the casino, and has several safeguards in place for if his occupancy reaches its current 50 percent limit of 373.

At 250 people inside, managers are notified. At 300, a second person staffs the main entrance to maintain a proper count, he said. At 330 people, the casino will enforce a “soft stop,” which means one person/couple in for every one person out in order to maintain protocols.

The entire reopening week met or exceeded attendance expectations, Monroe said, which has made the continuing long-haul work days worth the effort. He’s hopeful to have table games operational within the next two weeks.

“It’s a whole new set of focuses and priorities, but it feels amazing,” said Monroe, who took his first casino job in 1978. “I’ve been at this six days a week, for 10- or 12-hour days, my whole life. This was the longest lull of my career.”

That new challenge, however, is a welcome one, compared with the odd emptiness and silence of a casino gone dark.

“The first couple weeks (after the shutdown) were eerie,” Monroe said.

Consequently, the return to even this adjusted normal is welcome for operators and employees alike. Both Monroe and Dvorak said the vast majority of workers at their properties were just as excited to get back to doing their jobs as customers were to get back to gaming.

The period leading up to this past week struck Dvorak in an unexpected way.

“I was happy and relieved, but I was proud. Watching a team member add on to what they’re doing, making that extra step for safe environment for themselves and our customers, I saw how much they care about the business and the pride in where you work,” he said. “Having that there, I gained even more appreciation for the employees I work with.”

Iowa bans credit cards for sports wagering

Both branches of the Iowa Legislature approved an addendum to the state’s sports betting statute late last week that will affect daily fantasy sports and mobile-only operators going forward.

As part of an abbreviated extension of the state’s legislative session because of COVID-19, the Iowa House and Senate passed House File 2623, which prohibits credit cards from being used as a form of payment for sports wagering.

Iowa’s sports wagering laws, which were approved in the spring of 2019 and took effect this past August, did not explicitly mention credit cards as an outlawed method for making bets. The payment method was not initially banned in the first writing of the sports wagering bill, said Iowa Racing and Gaming Commission administrator Brian Ohorilko, because brick-and-mortar casino operators were already not allowed to accept credit cards for other gaming purposes at their facilities.

So initially, the 18 licensed operators for in-person or mobile sports wagering used cash deposits, prepaid debit cards or online checking account links. But when daily fantasy sports came online in the state later in the Iowa, multiple operators inquired about credit card funding capabilities, Ohorilko said.

The commission denied requests from multiple DFS operators to allow credit-card usage, he said.

“This is an effort for clarity to fill in that question,” Ohorilko said.

Iowa State Sen. Tony Bisignano, D-Des Moines, told Radio Iowa that he is thankful for that clarity.

“If you want you lose your paycheck, that’s fine. I don’t know how long you get away with that from your family, but with a credit card, you can run a debt that can’t possibly be paid,” he said.

Illinois lifts in-person rule

With Illinois looking to launch mobile sports betting at the end of the month, Gov. J.B. Pritzker has lifted the order requiring in-person registration due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pritzker issued an executive order last Thursday to provide economic relief to the casinos which have retail sportsbooks and are planning to launch mobile sports betting.

Currently, Rivers Casino and Argosy Casino are licensed in Illinois to take sports bets. The state’s Gaming Board will met Thursday to discuss approving additional casinos for sports betting.

There are five casinos that have temporary licenses which could become permanent. In addition, DraftKings and FanDuel are trying to get licensed to operate mobile sports betting and DFS in Illinois.