Innovating Safety: In Covid-19 Era, A Whole New Industry

A burgeoning industry is springing up to keep casinos safe, so customers young and old can feel comfortable visiting. It includes leading-edge technologies as well as simple but improved products, like cloth masks. Re-opening day at Caesars Palace at left.

Innovating Safety: In Covid-19 Era, A Whole New Industry

Recently, Mohegan Sun President and General Manager Jeffrey Hamilton observed, “I’m a big believer in ‘silent service’ during normal operations. When you think about the pandemic, it’s silent safety — the more signage, the more soap dispensers, the more sanitizers, the more things you can do to let the customer know it’s a safe environment.”

“You need to make casinos attractive again to people who are vulnerable,” said David Colvin, CEO and founder of Gaming Arts. “One factor unique to casinos is that top-tier players, platinum members who are well over 60 with preexisting conditions are very reluctant to return. Even a 1 percent drop in your top-tier players can lose 8 percent in revenue. It magnifies itself.”

Casinos, always reluctant to embrace new technology, have been forced to get on board by the black swan event that is Covid-19.

Playing It Safe

Darryl Rosenblatt, of Smith Rosen Gaming Partitions, said his company was the first to manufacture and introduce proactive UVC anti-Covid technology to casinos. The Safeplay UV Gaming Partition eradicates microbes while distancing players.

Smith Rosen was borne out of the pandemic, said Rosenblatt. “We were doing R&D while in complete lockdown.”

The acrylic Slot Machine Partition creates a physical barrier between players. It features a laser-etched themed design backlit by RGB (red, green and blue) LED lights mounted on the barrier’s perimeter. A wiper is activated when a player departs, and high-intensity ultra-violet LEDs—which can’t be seen directly—destroy all surface germs on the partition.

Rosenblatt told GGB News he believes some commercial operators refuse to accept that Covid is now a part of life. “The tribal nations have a different perspective from commercial casinos, which uses shibboleth posing as function. Tribal casinos want a permanent solution. A lot of that comes from the CARES Act, which makes it easier to spend” on safety measures.

“We thought commercial casinos would be super concerned about the welfare of their guests, but we were naïve. The attitude at commercial casinos is that Covid doesn’t exist, and go and enjoy your day. … But for the tribes, we’re seen as a saving grace. They were on the forefront of making people wear masks.”

Rosenblatt said mask use has too many exceptions—eating and drinking, for example—to be effective. “You can’t social distance in a casino, that’s the reality. This disease doesn’t care, it doesn’t take prisoners.”

The Slot Machine Partition, by contrast, “acts like a microbiological strainer. Everything in the air is caught, and UV destroys what’s on the partition.” Droplets containing the virus “don’t just dissipate. It might have a flight time, but at a certain point it’s going to land on someone or something. We have enough somethings to catch the virus and destroy it before it hurts people.

“It’s like a Stanley Kubrick vision of the future, a reminder of our time. It’s the only way to guarantee to bring the viral load of your casinos down. A virus has to make it to a vent before it goes to a filter, and it will attach to someone before it gets there. The partition doesn’t only keep people separated, but destroys the virus” at the cellular level.

The UVC light wavelength operates at 1/16th of an inch, “which will kill anything. Whatever survives the first pass is destroyed on the second.” The idea is to lower the casino’s microbial load. The partitions, combined with masks, are 98 percent effective, he said.

“Until this elephant in the room is addressed, you won’t have large numbers of people return,” he said. “Baby boomers are susceptible, and they know it. You have a different consumer, who doesn’t take Covid seriously. They travel in packs and mix it up with poor baby boomers who can’t sit for four hours with a mask.

“The state needs to take the gaming industry and throttle it a little bit. The regulators understand the science, but stop short of what is needed to keep people safe.”

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Germ Warfare

There are many places where people are vulnerable to viral exposure, including public restrooms.

Alan Brill of Brill Hygienics says the company’s sanitary toilet seats are now in more than 42 U.S. casinos, but “only in the ladies rooms. When a woman walks into the stall, a sensor picks up that fact, and a piece of high-density plastic unrolls that’s 100 percent germ-free.”

Although Brill has been in business since 1985, business has picked up considerably since the virus. “No one wants to use the public bathroom, because they heard the virus can live on surfaces. Our sales are huge,” with new business up 100 percent, he said. “Next week, we’re going to do Pala Casino. We’re in Sycuan. We’re all over the country from here to Minnesota. We have a product that’s a necessary, not just for the virus, but for common use.”

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Acres 4.0, founded by player-tracking pioneer John Acres, offers two products to fight Covid-19. The Clean Machine application notifies employees that a game needs cleaning by triggering when a session ends. And Smart Space, which locks and unlocks machines to promote social distancing, also requires recently played games to be sanitized before they are once again available.

“As soon as you get up and leave, the employee nearest will get a page, ‘Go clean machine B103l,’” said Noah Acres, Acres 4.0 chief operating officer. “There are a lot of solutions about spacing and turning off every other game, but we want to identify where people actually were, so we can sanitize it. When the player sits down, whether cash or ticket-in, immediately the games on either side deactivate. When I leave that game, the peripheral games turn on, my machine turns off, and it brings someone via a mobile dispatch system to sanitize it, at which point it turns back on.”

Acres added, “We also have an interface. When the employee cleans, the machine prints a note saying the machine has been cleaned.”

Divide and Conquer

In May, Las Vegas-based AGS and Tioli Gaming teamed up to sell the VisiDeal player divider. According to a product description, the VisiDeal “is designed to shield table-game players and staff from coughs, sneezes and airborne droplets, while maintaining an unobstructed view and keeping players and the dealer connected.”

More than 1,000 VisiDeal shields have been installed in North American casinos since then. According to John Hemberger, AGS senior vice president of table products, the solution permits more players at table games.

“Many of our customers who have installed VisiDeal are finding that, because they provide a physical barrier to prevent infection, players feel more confident and secure in sitting at a table game and enjoying the experience,” Hemberger said. “In addition, some jurisdictions are requiring table players to wear masks unless Plexiglas barriers are installed. Masks can become hot and uncomfortable after long periods of wear. While we certainly understand the short-term benefits these barriers provide, we also feel that VisiDeal can offer a long-term solution to keep players protected from airborne illnesses that are always going to be present, like colds and flu.”

The semicircular Plexiglas shields are designed for two to six players on blackjack-style and poker style games, and up to four on roulette and craps games. The shields curve around the table, separating the dealer from the players. Individual shields jut at right angles to separate players. They’re easy to install and clean, said Hemberger.

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Better Ventilation

Greg Peterson, founding partner of G2 Consulting of Colorado and Las Vegas, spoke to GGB News about trends in HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) systems to prevent the spread of Covid, including replacing MERV (minimum efficiency reporting values) standard filtration systems.

Rated between 1 and 20, the systems report a filter’s ability to capture larger particles (between 0.3 and 10 microns). “The higher you go, the better,” said Peterson. “Most existing systems can handle MERV 13. HEPA filters go from 15 to 20. Most HVAC can’t accommodate that, and it’s impractical to retrofit. None will eliminate pathogens on their own, but together they will definitely reduce the spread.”

Another way to reduce airborne pathogens is by maintaining correct ventilation levels. “Over the years, if you don’t maintain the system there’s a chance it won’t provide top service. Something as simple as regular maintenance and correct filters are common-sense things that make an impact,” said Peterson.

Products that make a significant impact are UVC filtration systems, which can be retrofitted into existing systems, he said. “UVC light damages the virus. The types that can be installed include air purification that removes the pathogen after it’s circulated.”

He added, “Another technology we really believe in and that some cruise ships are implementing is Needlepoint Bi-Polar Ionization. The nice thing about Needlepoint is it doesn’t generate ozone, which is not good to breathe indoors. It creates positive and negative ions, which are unstable and ‘seek’ to become neutral. The virus can’t survive without droplets. Ions remove the particle the virus attaches to, including water vapor, pulling it off and attaching to hydrogen.”

Put more simply, “It removes what the virus needs to attach to, and it dies within 30 minutes.”

Simple Safeguards

Some of the simplest products are among the most effective, like masks. Design Collective by Cintas is offering a complete line of washable and reusable masks designed for comfort and easy care in a variety of styles and options, including flame-resistant. Masks can be off the shelf or customized with logo or artwork, with a variety of fabrics.

Another mask manufacturer for casinos is Pacific Sports & Emblem Co., of El Cajon, California. Owner Rich Soergel described his product as “truly the most comfortable, washable, and reusable 3-ply PM95 mask out there.”

At the end of February, as Soergel’s usual business slowed, he reinvented it, shifting the focus from headwear and branded sports emblems to masks, face shields and hospital gowns. “I put 90 percent of my efforts into developing masks, face shields and gowns and did a gorilla campaign to reach those in need,” he said. “It worked and for three months, my new nickname was Dr. Mask (after being called Dr. Patch for years). I realized that masks are going to be something that not only healthcare workers and essential workers need, but the public is going to need.”

He invented the SofMask, a three-ply super-soft reusable mask featuring an anti-fog nose guard “to keep that annoying steam off our glasses.

“Because most competitors made one- to two-ply masks and few did thin three-ply, I shot out of the gate like never before. SofMask is now being used in various industries with samples and possible orders into the casino/resort business.”

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Light Years

Bethany Kozal, marketing manager for Gaming Arts, spoke to GGB News about that company’s Slot Shield. “We’ve been really fortunate,” she said. “Our cabinets already offer a natural social distance of six feet. That wasn’t our intention; it was how the design worked out. We didn’t have too much of a struggle when it came to spacing people out. It’s naturally six feet.”

The company had a large pipeline of orders ready when the pandemic hit. “A lot of what we were doing was rescheduling, and we’ve got a lot of reorders. Some casinos split machines into two and three configurations. Some turn every other machine off, but in our case, they don’t have to do that.”

Gaming Arts CEO and founder David Colvin said new products will be introduced later this year, including the Player Guard, “a UVC disinfecting system.”

UV light, he said, proven to kill microbes and viruses, has never been applied to gaming. “Around the first of the year, we recognized a need and started working on different products.” He started with a line of slot shields, but found that most operators are fabricating them in house—and materials are hard to acquire. “About the same time, we started doing research on UVC, looking for a long-term solution.”

The former owner of the Siena Spa and Casino in Reno, Colvin understands the nature of gaming, with “so many points of contact that could be hazardous to a player, such as machines, playing cards and dice. A lot of products claim to work, but don’t. We were on a mission to create a line of products steeped in science.”

Acting early on in the pandemic, Gaming Arts applied for many patents, with many more planned. “We’re very heavy into intellectual property,” Colvin told GGB News. “We’re hoping for availability by Q4.”

These are not simple devices, he said. “We engaged world-class experts in UV LEDs and lamps. Our goal is to sanitize as much as we can on the casino floor.” Colvin wants vulnerable players to “to have confidence that when they walk into a casino, everything they touch should be disinfected.”

Many operators claim to routinely clean machines every time they cash out, Colvin said, “but you literally don’t have enough people. Players typically sit down for five minutes and move. We’re looking for more perfect solutions.”

The slot machines equipped with the cleaning system have proximity sensors and motion detectors. When players get up from their seats, the UVC cleaner will turn on. The UVC light is directional and mounted under the monitor, and can only focus on the slot machine’s deck.

Dice and playing-card UVC cleaners are self-contained. All disinfection takes place in a sealed unit. “The card shuffler is within a sealed unit, and that’s where we put the UVC,” he said. “We’re working with a couple of parties to insert the units into shufflers, but also have a self-contained card disinfecting unit. Each individual card is sanitized, top and bottom. Each pass disinfects 90 percent, and it could pass through two or three times.”

He added, “We have a dice solution that will be ready this quarter. We’re midway in the engineering phase.”

Gaming Arts also manufacturers slots. There are about 1 million machines in the U.S. “How many can we retrofit? Many are 20 years old, and each cabinet is different.”

A primary configuration of the machines is circular, and at three, four and six pods, each provides good social distancing. “They don’t have to turn off every other machine, and that was more luck that anything else. When we designed our machines, coincidentally they fit social distancing. The casino floor of the future will replace rows, into a circular orientation.”

Colvin concluded, “People are starting to realize that Covid is not going anywhere soon. A lot of operators are reconsidering what they do. It’ll cost millions to develop. We want to make sure the market is there.”

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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.