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Game On In Florida? It Depends On The Gambling Venue

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Amid mandatory nightclub closures and voluntary restaurant shutdowns, gamblers across Florida face a patchwork of options if they want to place bets in a state grappling with the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus.

Many racetracks and jai alai frontons have suspended operations, in keeping with the White House's advice this week against gatherings of 10 people or more.

But other operators of state-licensed cardrooms have opted to keep facilities open, adding extra sanitation measures designed to combat the highly contagious disease known as COVID-19 and trying to implement "social distancing," as recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Temporary closures are due in part to decisions by some city officials, who have elected to shutter locations where crowds of more than 50 people can gather. In other instances, gambling facilities that haven't been forced to shut down have chosen to suspend operations because attendance has declined.

"The reality is, they're doing the best they can, under the circumstances," attorney John Lockwood, who represents several pari-mutuel operators, told The News Service of Florida. "It's a balancing act between the welfare of the public and their employees."

Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has canceled large events at its casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, closed its poker rooms and imposed limits on players at house-banked table games, such as blackjack and baccarat.

The Seminole Hard Rock Tampa is paying "special attention" to "high-touch" surfaces and using "a peroxide-based disinfectant that kills 99.9 percent of viruses and bacteria," according to a news release.

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But state Rep. Jackie Toledo, R-Tampa, has pushed the tribe to comply with the CDC recommendation that gatherings of more than 50 people should not take place.

In a letter to Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino Tampa President Steve Bonner dated Tuesday, Toledo asked him to "close your doors to prevent exposure to some of our most vulnerable populations."
Casinos throughout the country have temporarily shut down, Toledo pointed out.

"The more that large groups of people interact, the greater likelihood that Florida will spend tax dollars to treat preventable exposure --- money that can otherwise be spent on a more vulnerable member of our community," she wrote.

But the Seminoles, who have a sovereign government, maintain they have implemented a variety of measures aimed at protecting customers and workers, such as unplugging half of the slot machines at the Tampa facility to create space between patrons.

"The Seminole Hard Rock Tampa is working to safeguard the health and well-being of guests and team members by increasing social distancing, rescheduling shows and other mass gathering events, closing the poker room, frequently cleaning and disinfecting all surfaces, making hand sanitizer available at many more locations and giving team members the option to stay home and use paid time off, even if they have a zero balance of paid time off," a statement said. "And all of this has been accomplished while preserving the current income of the vast majority of team members."

Casinos in Nevada will be mothballed for 30 days, following an order by Gov. Steve Sisolak shutting down nonessential businesses.

But Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has hesitated to take such drastic steps. This week, he ordered bars and nightclubs to shut down and ordered restaurants to operate at 50 percent capacity and practice "social distancing" of diners.

A search of Florida pari-mutuel websites showed a mashup of responses to COVID-19, which the Florida Department of Health blamed for the deaths of seven Floridians as of Wednesday afternoon.

The Big Easy Casino in Hollywood, which normally operates poker tables and slot machines, shut down at 10 p.m. Tuesday "and will remain closed until further notice," according to the facility's website.
"We are committed to the health and safety of our employees, patrons and community," the website said. "We wish everyone good health and please stay informed with local and federal agencies."

Magic City Casino in Miami has also closed indefinitely, according to its website.

Across the state in St. Petersburg, Derby Lane's poker room remained open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., with a limit of four players at table games and six players at live games, the greyhound track's website says.

"Social distancing is a must," the website said, advising people to "always maintain" a six-foot distance from others. Gloves are available for patrons, according to the website.

"We've always taken seriously the cleanliness of our facilities. Knowing this is more important than ever, we are implementing additional measures to clean and disinfect our facility," the site said.
Palm Beach Kennel Club, however, "has suspended all operations" due to the coronavirus, according to the West Palm Beach facility's website.

"PBKC will continue to monitor all appropriate medical advice in keeping our customers and employees safe," the website said.

Mirroring actions in other states, Florida horse tracks are continuing to run races --- but without spectators. Attendance is limited to "horsemen, jockeys, essential staff, state-licensed officials and accredited media for the foreseeable future," an announcement on Tampa Bay Downs' website said.

The Tampa horse track's poker room shut down Monday and plans to reopen on March 30, "unless there are any changes announced from the CDC or government agencies," the site said.

Poker rooms are shuttered at Naples-Ft. Myers Greyhound Racing & Poker, Casino Miami Jai-Alai, and Melbourne Greyhound Park. In Duval County, bestbet Jacksonville has shut down and neighboring bestbet Orange Park in Clay County planned to close Wednesday night. The Daytona Beach Racing & Card Club remained open, according to its website.

The indefinite closures mean that hundreds of Florida gambling-industry workers temporarily are unemployed, which could hurt the state economy and employees' household finances.

Jamie Shelton, president of bestbet, told the News Service he is trying to help his workers through a trying time.

"We are devastated at the impact this will have on our 700 employees here in Northeast Florida. However, the safety and well-being of our employees and our patrons has and will be our number one concern," Shelton said. "Our employees are what makes bestbet. We are working diligently to craft a plan in which we can return such dedication by helping them through these troubled times through some sort of continued compensation."

(©2020 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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