How Can Casinos Track Potential Covid Cases?

Can casinos use existing loyalty and surveillance systems to identify infected customers and trace the chain of contact? Casino surveillance expert Willy Allison (l.) explains best practices, and possible limitations.

How Can Casinos Track Potential Covid Cases?

In late June, public health officials in California’s San Diego County said they were investigating Covid-19 cases that may be connected to tribal casinos, which reopened several weeks ago.

Sycuan Casino in El Cajon confirmed to new affiliate NBC 7 that it was cooperating with health officials to discover if four potentially infected customers, who were unconnected to each other, may have visited during a particular time frame.

At the same time, county epidemiologist Eric McDonald, M.D., confirmed that he was working to trace an unnamed number of cases that may have been related to tribal gaming halls.

Aside from Sycuan, tribal properties that have reopened in San Diego County in the last month include Viejas Casino & Resort, Valley View Casino & Resort, Jamul Casino, Pala Casino Spa & Resort, Harrah’s Resort Southern California and Barona Resort & Casino. All opened with restrictions, including capacity limits, social distancing requirements, face masks for all and in many cases, no entertainment venues. They have also shut down at least half of their slot machines, upped sanitization protocols and are scanning patrons’ temperatures as they enter.

Tribal casinos are typically reluctant to talk about investigations involving outside law enforcement agencies, because their nations are sovereign and not legally required to cooperate. Casinos, too, tend to be circumspect about technologies that would allow them to trace patrons within their properties. Which all raises the question of how casinos could help in such an investigation if need be.

Willy Allison, founder and owner of World Game Protection and a longtime expert in casino surveillance, told GGB News that tribal casinos likely would not have facial recognition software available to trace the comings and goings of its customers.

“Only about 10 percent of the casinos have it. Don’t listen to the lies, the reality is, most casinos don’t have it. In Southern California, maybe Pechanga has it. There’s been this big hype about facial recognition, and it really hasn’t been deployed much, although I believe people are looking at it now.”

The purpose of surveillance in a casino is to “keep the bad guys out,” Allison said. “And the bad guys don’t look at cameras. They wear hats.”

The issue of contact tracing “is more interesting,” he said. “Do casinos have the ability the ability to do it? Yes. I can tell you how they’re doing it in Asia. It’s not through facial recognition, it’s through cameras and their marketing systems.”

Every square inch of today’s casinos, from the parking garage to the gaming floor to elevators and common areas, are surveyed by cameras. “If someone discovered they had Covid, we could go to the cameras and see that person,” Allison said. “You’ve got two choices. One is to use the video camera to do an investigation and track when they came into the property, which is time-consuming.”

There’s another, smarter way to track people who tested positive to see if they went to restaurants, stopped at bars or played on slot machines. “What happens in Asia: a call is made to the house department, which contacts the surveillance department, which goes into the marketing system,” said Allison. “They have a name and date of birth, and we have two systems, one for slot marketing system and one for table games. If they pop the name, they can use that to tell them where they played, and what time they were there. We use that because we comp people.

“Next step would be, say, that person was at a table, and they were in position one. Casinos could check that table for duration and check the other players who were at that table, who are also on that system. They can locate people that way.”

Facial recognition doesn’t often come into play, and, with everyone wearing masks, the technology might be pretty useless. “Surveillance guys are pretty good, but the mask is like a beard,” said Allison.

He emphasized that the video camera and marketing database ought to be good enough to look at the actual records to find out where an individual was at any time in the casino—and who that person sat next to or interacted with. With cameras, “I could track every footstep. What could happen is, as they did at Australia, they make everybody have a players card.”

Unfortunately, casinos have the resources but not enough people in surveillance to tell where somebody went inside the facility during the last two weeks. A typical casino has three surveillance people per shift, with each operator responsible for about 20 tables, Allison said.

“It’s a lengthy process,” he said. “If we look outside our bubble and study the countries that have been successful (in fighting the coronavirus), they used a combination of surveillance and contact tracing. They hunt it down, find where it is, go knocking on doors and bring them in and isolate them. You should always look at best practices. Casinos could be a great place for contact tracing, if the casinos agreed to do it and provided they have the human resources to do it.”

Casinos were “worried at first” about the ubiquitous use of facial coverings, Allison said, “but I’ve seen stories circulated of card-counters who were identified, even though they were wearing masks. There are hundreds of different facial recognition systems. Some can pick up masks, and some can’t.”

Those technologies are likely to grow in sophistication given the impact of the virus.

Articles by Author: David Ross

David D. Ross edits the Escondido Times-Advocate and Valley Roadrunner newspapers. A freelance journalist for over 40 years, Ross is knowledgeable about San Diego's backcountry and has written on tourism in Julian, Palomar Mountain, San Diego Safari Park—and the area’s casinos. He has a master’s degree in military history from Norwich University.