Massachusetts Regulators Allow Casinos To Offer More Seats At Gaming Tables
MGM Springfield and Encore Boston Harbor were cleared Thursday to resume offering craps games and to add a seat for a fourth gambler at blackjack tables and other games as the Massachusetts Gaming Commission continues to manage the resumption of casino gaming one year after it was abruptly halted.
The state's two resort casinos, which have been operating with limited offerings since mid-July under capacity limits and other COVID-19 safety restrictions, asked the commission to allow the expansion as coronavirus metrics slowly improve and more people are becoming vaccinated. When the commission allowed casinos to reopen in July, regulators did not allow poker, craps and roulette on the gaming floors, though roulette was authorized in October.
Regulators said that the changes – increasing from a maximum of three players at blackjack and blackjack-style tables to a maximum of four players, and allowing craps games to begin with a maximum of six players – will not only boost casino revenues but will also reactivate more than 200 jobs for dealers, supervisors and servers.
The four commissioners were not in agreement on all of the new allowances, which came up almost exactly one year to the day that the Gaming Commission held a Saturday meeting and decided to shut down the casinos and slots parlor. Commissioner Eileen O'Brien said she was concerned that it was premature to be loosening restrictions. She voted no on the blackjack-style table expansion but agreed with the other three commissioners on reintroducing craps.
"It's really just saying we want to put another body at a table. I have concerns about, in particular, the masks being down in that environment probably more likely near people who are not part of your bubble or part of your party as they might be at a restaurant," O'Brien said. "I have huge hesitations right now. I may feel differently in two, three or four weeks as we do more of this opening up, but I have some concerns on the blackjack additional seat request."
Other commissioners, including Chairwoman Cathy Judd Stein, said they were more comfortable with the changes because of the mandated safety measures and the seriousness with which the casinos have treated the commission's rules.
"Given the decisions in Massachusetts, which I remain confident continue to be data-driven decisions, my level of comfort on expanding these gaming positions is pretty high. We are continuing to assume a degree of risk ... but I do credit the enforcement measures of our team but also the vigilance and compliance of the licensees," she said.
Investigations and Enforcement Bureau Director Loretta Lillios detailed the safety measures that casinos must follow and said the Department of Public Health raised no objections when it was briefed on the plan.
For blackjack-style table games (including baccarat and pai gow), the four players must be seated at least three feet apart and be separated by plexiglass barriers at least 5'11" tall.
Lillios said Massachusetts "would not be an outlier" whether it granted the request for a fourth player seat or not. New Jersey allows six players at blackjack-style tables; Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York all allow four players per table; and Rhode Island and Connecticut each allow three players at a table, she said.
Bruce Band, assistant director of the IEB, said the addition of a fourth gambling position would mean a total of 182 more playing positions at Encore and 48 more playing positions at MGM. He said four seats will make it easier for couples or groups to sit together when gambling and will also allow the casinos some flexibility to offer tables with a range of minimum bets.
Though no dealers would be brought back to the job as a result of adding a fourth seat, Lillios said that Encore estimated the increase in active gamblers would mean about 20 more jobs for cocktail servers and about 60 extra food and beverage jobs since only people seated and actively gambling can eat or drink on the gaming floor.
Craps games will be allowed a maximum of six players, three on each side of the table. Players must remain seated, will be at least four feet apart from each other, and will be separated from each other and the table by plexiglass barriers at least six feet tall. The three dealers at each table will also be separated by plexiglass. The dice will be sanitized between each shooter.
Lillios said all other jurisdictions the commission surveyed are currently allowing craps and that some gamblers are "craps-only players" who have been playing the game elsewhere since Massachusetts casinos reopened last summer without it.
"It's been explained to me that this would be an opportunity to capture those players and that revenue," Lillios said.
At Encore, the new allowance will be evident as soon as Thursday night. Band said the Everett casino plans a total of seven craps tables by early next week, including two that are expected to come online Thursday night. MGM is planning to have two craps tables open by March 16, he said.
For Encore, the addition of craps will mean 110 jobs for dealers and supervisors and will mean about 32 similar jobs at MGM, according to Band.
Because of the social nature of craps and the tendency of people to congregate around a craps table to watch, commissioners said they were concerned that the game's reintroduction could lead to crowding on gaming floors. Band said the commission's gaming agents will be paying close attention to that issue and that the casinos will also work to avoid anything that would jeopardize their ability to offer the game.
"They are well aware how much we are going to be monitoring this and I'm sure they're going to be on top of it," he said.