Casino CEO: Vaccine Mandate ‘Leading by Example’

With Covid cases spiking in parts of the U.S., some casino operators have moved from mask-and-test requirements to a vaccine mandate. Among the first to require vaccinations was MGM Resorts. But Mississippi’s Scarlet Pearl Casino did it first.

Casino CEO: Vaccine Mandate ‘Leading by Example’

Back in June 2020, when U.S. casinos began to reopen following initial Covid-19 shutdowns, operators hoped they had seen the worst of the pandemic and would soon be back to business as usual.

More than a year later, low vaccine rates in parts of the country coupled with the more contagious Delta strain have dashed those expectations. In some markets, masks are back—for employees, guests or both. And in jurisdictions where Covid numbers are up, some operators have drawn a hard line for employees: get the jab or forfeit the job.

Earlier this month, MGM Resorts International announced it would require all new hires to be vaccinated by August 30 and salaried employees to show proof of inoculation by October 15. With some 6,000 employees nationwide, MGM got most of the headlines. But it was preceded in its decision by Scarlet Pearl Casino in D’Iberville, Mississippi, with a total of 800 workers.

On July 27, Scarlet Pearl CEO Luann Pappas issued a directive requiring that all employees be vaccinated by the end of August. According to WLOX-TV, Scarlet Pearl was the first large business in South Mississippi to demand across-the-board vaccines among the rank and file.

“It’s a decision and discussion around every boardroom right now, and we put a lot of thought into it,” Pappas told GGB News. “We’ve always been a leader, even in those things that are controversial, and we believed it was the right thing to do.”

Pappas said Mississippi “is in the bottom of the pack in terms of vaccination, third in the country in positive cases per 100 population. It’s horrible what’s happening right now, and so unnecessary. Our hospital systems are in a crisis.”

Before the directive, vaccination rates among the casino’s workers were “a little under 30 percent. It kind of followed the state average,” said Pappas. “That was the scary part. But one of our core pillars is ‘Scarlet Pearl cares,’ and it seemed fitting for us to do our part to ensure the health and safety of our customers, our business community and our associates.”

Discussions about a vaccine requirement rolled out gradually, in response to viral rates and the availability of vaccines. The mandate applied to the vice president and board of directors first, then directors, then managers.

“We said we have to lead by example,” said Pappas. “Next we told our supervisors they had to have the first vaccination by August 13. Last, we told associates they had to have the first vaccine within two weeks, by the 27th.”

She expected a little pushback, and she got it; some workers were vocal in their opposition. But overall, Pappas said, “It was OK—honest to goodness, it’s OK. It was, ‘I don’t want to do this, but I will.’

“It took a lot of communication—equal amounts compassion and passion, if you will. Because everyone has their own reasons, and yes, they’re correct that it’s their body, their choice. But when your primary function is to service hundreds of thousands of customers and be in close quarters with other individuals that we call family, it becomes a responsibility.”

A $300 cash incentive also helped people get in line.

“It’s easy to say to a bonus-eligible manager, ‘You’re going to get a vaccine,’” Pappas said. “It was exponentially harder as you go down to the hourly associates.” The casino was criticized online and in some email messages, “but mostly, what we’re hearing from the people inside the four walls is, ‘Thank you for caring enough to do the right thing.’”

According to the Biloxi Sun-Herald, as of this week Mississippi was second in the nation in terms of active infections, after Oklahoma. The state also had the second-highest rate of residents testing positive for the virus (42.4 percent, with Oklahoma at 81 percent).

Hospitals are overflowing, the newspaper reported, “with patients being treated in emergency rooms and waiting for beds statewide.” Twenty thousand schoolchildren have been quarantined after being exposed to the virus. State data show that Mississippi had 25,202 new cases in the week ending August 20, compared to almost 23,000 cases in the week ending August 13.

To facilitate its in-house vaccine plan, Scarlet Pearl has an onsite clinic with a nurse practitioner in attendance. As for those who refuse—well, there’s little room for negotiation, said Pappas. “The outcome is obvious to people. To work at Scarlet Pearl, you need to be vaccinated, and you have to be fully vaccinated before you can get a job.”

People who object on religious or medical grounds may take an unpaid leave of absence, but all must eventually comply before coming back to work. “There’s an end date to all of it,” Pappas said, “and you still have to be vaccinated.”

As for business as usual? That’s still in the future. When Scarlet Pearl first reopened last summer, employees were required by the state and gaming commissioners to wear face masks. That requirement was then lifted. “But as we saw cases start to escalate, we didn’t need the state to tell us it was back to the masks,” said Pappas.

While the casino’s Plexiglas dividers are gone, strict cleaning protocols are still in place, and parties and other gatherings have been suspended.

Once called a “Steel Magnolia with a warm heart” by Gulf Coast magazine, Pappas feels confident the industry will remain open, and so will the country. But in her view, Covid isn’t going anywhere soon.

“I wish I’d spent the last year doing things to be more profitable and make more money, but that’s not the fact. I think, unfortunately, this is something we’re going to have to learn to live with, doing our best to protect ourselves and each other.”

And as a result of the vaccine order, as of last week 750 of 800 Scarlet Pearl workers had been vaccinated, with all 800 set to have their first shot by the end of August, according to Pappas.

“So when people say, ‘You can’t do that’—well, yes, you can.”

Articles by Author: Marjorie Preston

Marjorie Preston is managing editor of Global Gaming Business. She is a writer, editor, author and expat Pennsylvanian who now considers herself a New Jerseyan. Based on Brigantine Island north of Atlantic City, Preston has been writing about the gaming industry since 2007, when she joined the staff of Global Gaming Business as managing editor of Casino Connection.