Casino wins gamble on new normal
By JAKE WEBSTER
For The Jefferson Herald
The day Wild Rose Casino & Resort reopened in Jefferson last month after a 75-day closure because of COVID-19, a line of 140 people waited to get into the popular regional entertainment venue.
Tom Timmons, president and COO of Wild Rose Casino & Resorts, called it a happy moment.
“The 75 days felt like 150 to me, it was a long time, and we all want to be open, we want to be back to the way things were, but that’s probably not going to happen for a while,” he said.
The casino’s revenue is mostly back to where it was at this point last year, before the pandemic, he said.
As of closing time Sunday, 26,650 guests — down only modestly from 33,784 in the month of June 2019 — had walked through the casino’s doors, taking advantage of the game machines and table games amid the “new normal, for now.”
“This virus isn’t going anywhere, I think we say that with certainty, so we have to learn how to live with it,” Timmons said. “If it gets to a point where people don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes, that’s a personal choice, but if we’re going to learn to live with it you do have to at some point come out of your home.”
All casino employees wear masks, and anyone entering its kitchen is required to wear masks and gloves.
Machines are constantly being cleaned by staff after their use, and while patrons entering are not required to wear masks — with the exception of those at table games — on Tuesday afternoon more than half were sporting masks.
In addition to regular cleaning, some machines are shut down entirely with signs attached noting they are “currently out of service.” Other more popular games are outfitted with plastic barriers to separate users.
Travis Dvorak, the casino’s general manager, called the shutdown for 10 weeks the “right move.” The day after the casino closed, he worked with others on a plan to reopen.
“You don’t want to come back unless you do it safely, make everybody safe and secure and healthy,” he said.
Dvorak said even before Wild Rose closed, the casino started putting in some measures to mitigate the spread of disease, such as shutting down self-service pop and coffee machines. Self-service remains shut down, and at the bar on the floor, guests must place orders at a point with a protective plexiglass barrier between them and bar staff.
Dvorak said reopening was initially a challenge because there weren’t any Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for casinos.
“But we were looking at what was open, we were looking at what Hy-Vee was doing, what Fareway was doing, what Walmart was doing, what Costco was doing,” he said. “And that was really our starting point. We saw them doing the six-foot stickers, so we ordered the six-foot stickers, we saw them put plexiglass at point of sale so we were already ordering that stuff.”
Those mitigation measures were visible on the floor and throughout the building, along with signs reminding patrons to continue social distancing and avoid loitering.
Furthermore, staff went through a reorientation before reopening.
“They went through a reorientation strictly for this pandemic and (personal protective equipment) and all employees were given classes on what we call donning and doffing your gear, also on what to look for, how to properly clean all your services,” Dvorak said.
He also laid out the protocol if there is someone to test positive for COVID-19 who is discovered to have been in the building.
“If a customer is found to have it ... the customer will be barred obviously until they get tested (negative),” he said. “If an employee has it, HR has protocols on how we handle it, we have to inform anybody they were in contact with, and then everybody has to be tested and quarantined. I am happy to say right now that anybody who has been tested has come back negative, so to date we have zero infections.”
Dvorak then knocked on his wooden desk.
“Hopefully it stays that way,” he added.
While the casino was closed, community members continued using it as a meeting point. Dvorak relayed the story of a family who had Polk County license plates who met older people with Buena Vista plates, and the younger group transferred groceries to the other car without making contact.
Dvorak also described a family that came to the parking lot on Easter to have a socially distant gathering.
“For Easter Sunday I had to work here, we were closed but I had to work that day and man the surveillance, and I noticed there was this family,” he said. “There was a grandmother and she had a facemask on, and there were probably two kids that were my age and then there were probably four or five grandkids who were 10 or seven and under.”
Everyone was at least six feet and up to 20 feet apart, he said. He described the grandmother putting a blanket down and putting Easter baskets on the blanket and then she walked back and kids went to grab those baskets, and they even hid some Easter eggs by a retaining pond.
“This was a way for Grandma to have Easter with her kids and grandkids,” he said. “While being outside, while having that distance, while having a nice safe and healthy situation. It’s actually kind of neat to see that.”
While the casino reopened June 1, table games didn’t return until June 12.
They are also beginning to host events again.
Wild Rose Jefferson will host an event honoring service members who have died since the 9/11 terrorist attacks during casino hours from July 2-8 free of charge in the casino’s Greene Room, featuring 32 “Tribute Towers” along with more than 5,000 military and personal photos of the nation’s post-9/11 military fallen.
As another part of that return to normalcy, the casino is set to again host the city of Jefferson’s annual fireworks display July 4 at dusk, with a rain date of July 5.
“We’ve got a big parking lot, and so we can make sure everything is spaced, and most people have been really good about keeping their social distance,” Dvorak said. “We’ll monitor in case there’s an issue, but it’s all outside.”