Best of 2020: The night COVID-19 silenced the slots at Foxwoods
This story was originally published on March 18, 2020.
Mashantucket — The only man at the last bar open at Foxwoods Resort Casino sipped bottled water and played Keno on a video screen embedded in the bar top. His name was George Duggan, and he came to witness a moment.
After 28 years and one month of non-stop gambling, defying blizzards and hurricanes, through bull and bear markets, the shock of Sept. 11, 2001 and the election of four presidents, Foxwoods was about to pause.
The tiniest and strongest of disrupters, the COVID-19 coronavirus, had done the impossible. It breached the bubble that keeps a casino a world unto itself, a place without clocks or windows, where the music never stops and the lights never dim.
Not until Tuesday night.
“It’s historic is what it is,” Duggan said. “It’s sad history, but it’s history.”
Five televisions loomed over the bar. On the left, ESPN showed the Big 12 Championship Game from another decade, the only sports available in the age of coronavirus. Texas led Kansas, 32-10, but anyone with Google could predict that a rally would give the game to Kansas. It was a replay from March 11, 2007.
The next TV broadcasts news from March 17, 2020. CNN’s headline: U.S. CORONAVIRUS DEATH TOLL REACHES 100; 5,500+ CASES.
“It’s sad history, but it’s history.”
The official Foxwoods closing was 8 p.m., but life had been slowly bleeding out of the sprawling complex for days, even before the tribal owners, the Mashantucket Pequots, agreed to follow the rules set for the world off the reservation, and close its doors.
The Mohegan tribe was doing the same on the other side of the Thames River, closing the Mohegan Sun for the first time since it opened in 1994. Duggan said he heard Mohegan was empty by 5 p.m., but there still were stragglers at Foxwoods at 7 p.m.
The tribes agreed Monday night to a two-week respite, but no one really thinks the COVID-19 pandemic will slide by in two weeks just because the lights are off, the slots are quiet and the parking garages empty. The virus is here in eastern Connecticut, even without a confirmed case.
Rodney Butler said he believes that. He is the Pequots’ tribal chairman, the man who initially hoped that social distancing might work in a casino. Foxwoods disabled every other video slot machine. It closed the poker room and limited players at the tables. Mohegan took similar measures.
The sanitizing wipes in the stainless steel stands arrived a week and half ago, letting patrons wipe down their favorite slot machines. Pump bottles of sanitizer sat at every table where gamblers bet on roulette, craps, baccarat and blackjack.
On Saturday, the giant bingo hall closed, along with the adjacent buffet.
“Because of the demographic of that player, we felt it was a no-brainer,” said Wayne Theiss, the vice president of gaming operations.
Bingo skews old. So does COVID-19.
Theiss came from Atlantic City to work the opening in February of 1992, and he never left. He was there when management abandoned the original plan to close the tables at 2 a.m.
“They were seven deep,” Theiss said.
Butler bumped into Theiss and Jacqueline Mason, another executive, near the Grand Pequot, the only gambling floor still open. All three acknowledged being deeply disoriented by the empty tables, empty slots, empty bars.
“Weird,” Theiss said.
“Scary weird,” Mason corrected.
Butler continued his walk around the complex. When he reached the long corridor approaching the Rainmaker Casino, the original gaming floor, he stopped, reached for his phone and took a picture. The corridor was empty.
“I’ve never seen that in my life,” he said.
Even at 4 a.m., when he used to make the slots drop early in his career, the corridor would be packed.
The sound system overhead played Donna Summer singing, “Last Dance.”
So let’s dance, the last dance/Let’s dance, the last dance/Let’s dance, this last dance tonight.
“Perfect,” he said, wincing. “The classic end-of-wedding song. Oh, man.”
As Butler walked, he greeted employees. There was the slots attendant who’s been there 28 years, the security officer in his 22nd. All assured him the closure was the right thing.
“May be it will set by tonight, like it kind of did for me last night — I really had a moment last night — but they’re actually like, ‘Thank you,’ Everyone I talk with is like ‘We understand it. We’re doing what we have to do,’ ” Butler said.
Butler is unsure how long the Pequots can afford to keep Foxwoods closed. It costs about $10 million a week to keep the place going, he said. That includes payments on the casino’s $2 billion debt, the 25% percent share of the gross gaming revenue from slots it pays Connecticut, and a payroll with about 5,000 employees.
They defaulted on their debt in 2009, and it took five years to restructure.
The tribes had been talking to the Lamont administration about sports betting and online gambling before the pandemic.
“I know people don’t want to talk about expansion of gaming and all that stuff at this time,” Butler said. “But at some point we need to talk about what should we have done already and what can we do quickly moving it beyond this — and a great example is online gaming.”
The administration is willing to support the legalization of sports betting and cutting a deal with the tribes that would give them rights to a sports book at their casinos and a share of the online book statewide. The tribes want all forms of online gambling, including the ability to turn every smartphone, tablet and computer into a virtual casino. Lamont is opposed.
Butler said online gambling would be welcome right now. He also acknowledged this week is not the time for that conversation.
In the Grand Pequot Casino, an unhappy gambler named Jose Vasquez played on a Lord of the Rings slot machine. He complained that Foxwoods was not taking his drink order.
“Write that down,” he instructed a reporter.
Joanna Miklosz, who had been staying at Foxwoods since Sunday, arrived in a better mood to try slots, not her usual game. She comes to Foxwoods to play blackjack.
“But not today,” she said.
The dealers were gone. So were the bartenders.
Miklosz said she is worried about both. Bartenders, waitresses and dealers all make more money off tips than salary, and unemployment benefits do little for tipped workers unless they diligently report all tipped income, she said. Miklosz allowed that she is aware of some bartenders who do not follow that practice.
“I’m actually a bartender,” she said.
Vasquez stopped briefly by a slots machine named Elvis. It promised “shakes, rattling, reels.”
But not tonight. Its video screen was solid blue with a tiny message found on the machines already on their two-week break: “Out of service. Local disabled.”
Elvis already had left the building.
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