Calls for More Transparency With Coronavirus Cases Inside Maryland Casinos

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Maryland state records show at least 133 casino employees have tested positive for COVID-19, including dozens since the beginning of October, according to an investigation by the News4 I-Team.

The six casinos, which employ more than 7,000 workers, were shuttered between March and June due to the initial COVID-19 outbreak. 

Though casinos have installed new plexiglass partitions, sanitizing stations and thermal temperature screenings and ordered mask mandates, the series of recent cases among employees raises questions about the safety of staff and patrons inside.

The I-Team’s review also revealed the challenges in obtaining case information from local casinos. State and local health departments said they do not publicly report virus cases among casino workers or patrons, nor would casinos acknowledge questions from the I-Team about the number of COVID-19 cases they’ve experienced. The I-Team used a series of public records request to the Maryland Lottery & Gaming Control Agency to find the number of cases among casino workers.   

As of mid-November, the state has learned of at least 133 workers who have tested positive, approximately 60 of them since the beginning of October, the records said. 

State gaming officials did not specify which casinos had suffered the most cases nor the severity of the cases.  

A spokesperson for the state agency overseeing the industry told the I-Team, “According to casino management, Live!, Ocean Downs, Rocky Gap and Horseshoe are required to report to their local health departments. Hollywood and MGM are not required to do so.”

When the public is involved, they need to have as much information as possible. If you know a place has a high infection rate, you’re going to avoid it.

State Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County)

The I-Team also reached out to the Maryland Department of Health and Prince George’s County Department of Health, who said it does not require public reporting of cases at MGM National Harbor casino in Oxon Hill. The Anne Arundel County Department of Health, which helps oversee Maryland Live! Casino, declined multiple requests to answer questions about the public reporting of COVID-19 cases at the casino.

“Having as much information as possible is important for the public’s health,” said state Sen. Paul Pinsky (D-Prince George’s County).

Coronavirus Cases in DC, Maryland and Virginia

COVID-19 cases by population in D.C. and by county in Maryland and Virginia

Source: DC, MD and VA Health Departments
Credit: Anisa Holmes / NBC Washington

Pinsky said the state should consider providing more transparency in how it notifies the public about COVID-19 at the six casinos, all of which are regulated by the state.

“When the public is involved, they need to have as much information as possible,” Pinsky said. “If you know a place has a high infection rate, you’re going to avoid it.”

The I-Team asked all six casinos to specify how many employees have tested positive for COVID-19 and about the protocols they’ve instituted to reduce risks. None of the casinos responded to the question about case numbers. Only Rocky Gap Casino in western Maryland responded to the I-Team’s inquiry at all. 

“We do not disclose health information about team members,” a casinos spokeswoman said. “Any confirmed cases of COVID-19 are reported for community contract tracing. Our protocols for internal tracing include identifying any team members who may have come in contact with the infected team member, who are then immediately tested for COVID-19. We then conduct a thorough sanitization of the team member’s work area. Team members may return to work only after they have tested negative for COVID-19.”

Your Chances of Encountering the Coronavirus at an Event This Thanksgiving

This map, based on a model by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology, uses real-time data to show the risk of attending an event given its size and location. The risk level refers to the probability of encountering at least one COVID-19 positive individual, and the model assumes there are at least five times more cases than are being reported.

Source: COVID-19 Event Risk Assessment Planning Tool
Amy O’Kruk/NBC

In recent board meetings of the Maryland Lottery & Gaming Control Agency, state regulators have cited a series of potential risks inside casinos since the re-openings began in June. In one report, the state flagged crowding and a lack of social distancing near the bar and drink service areas at MGM National Harbor. The agency also reported nearly a dozen physical altercations each month at MGM National Harbor and several others since June at Maryland Live! and Horseshoe Baltimore Casino.

Maryland Del. Nick Mosby (D-Baltimore), who represents a community near Horseshoe Baltimore Casino, said the state should be publicly reporting infections among casino staff as part of its formal oversight of the industry. 

“When we are really talking about getting ahead of the spread and transmission of the virus, we must talk about ways for government to use data to inform the public,” Mosby said.

The six casinos are operating at reduced capacity, with plexiglass barriers between players at table games, a reduction in the number of operating slot machines and mask mandates. Hannah Eason, a regular patron of MGM National Harbor, said customers and employees have been consistently diligent about wearing masks and using sanitizing stations inside the facility. Eason said the crowds remain sizable inside but are spread out further than before the pandemic.  

State Lottery & Gaming Control Agency reports show casinos have earned nearly $140 million a month in revenue since reopening in June, nearly even with pre-pandemic earnings. In a state board meeting, casino operators credited pent up demand with fueling business.   

Eason said it would benefit some customers to know about COVID-19 cases inside the casinos before deciding whether to continue visiting. 

“I think knowledge is power,” Eason said. “I think if you're going to be someone who feels comfortable because there are older people who are huge visitors of casinos, and for some of them, if they can't find easily what kind of rates of outbreaks are ongoing, they're not going to frequent there ever again."

Reported by Scott MacFarlane, produced by Rick Yarborough, and shot and edited by Steve Jones.

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