Dave Battagello • Windsor Star

With over 2,300 local jobs hanging in the wind, the fate of Caesars Windsor — as with casinos around the world — has industry leaders scrambling to figure out what the next chapter looks like in the new era of social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ontario alone, there are over 16,000 jobs at stake tied to the casino industry and 90,000 nationally, according to Paul Burns, CEO of the Canadian Gaming Association.

“Closing for casinos was easy, but reopening will be very difficult,” he said. “First, making sure the health and safety of employees is protected, that will be paramount.

“Social distance requirements will be part of the new look when any casino opens. That means to start no buffets or shows. Places like Caesars Windsor, they have great entertainment, but their venue will not likely be hosting shows for awhile.”

Gambling venues feature tight confines at gaming tables, sharing of chips, plus slot machines often stacked together in clusters. Contact among fellow customers or casino employees seems very difficult to avoid, but Burns indicated planning and discussions are underway, despite no end in sight to the ongoing pandemic crisis.

Some industry leaders are observing what’s occurred in Macau where smaller casinos have already reopened, he said. Put in place are limited seating at gaming tables and a large number of slot machines being closed and off-limits in a manner that safely spreads out machines still available.

In addition, chip washers at each table are being considered, possibly even partitions — similar to those being utilized by cashiers at grocery stores — to separate employees from customers or even between gamblers themselves, he said.

Each casino, including Caesars Windsor, will face unique issues given their layout, Burns said.

“Each will have to follow the direction of their public health unit and the province to determine what reopening looks like,” he said.

The union boss for employees at Caesars Windsor said he has been so immersed in attempting to secure employment insurance and benefits for the casino’s employees — in many cases more difficult than anticipated.

“Obviously, social distancing will occur, but I have no idea what the plan will be since it’s not even on my radar right now,” said Dave Cassidy, president for Unifor Local 444 which represents local casino employees. “People getting their (unemployment) money has become a real struggle.

“Our prayer is eventually (the casino is) going to return (to business levels prior to the crisis). But now you have a lot of people just trying to make ends meet, let alone having any disposable income. There will be safety precautions, but it hasn’t crossed my mind how things will look when our members get back to work.”

Some in the Canadian casino industry believe it may take anywhere from 12 months up to two years to see a return to business, depending on a casino’s location and level of COVID-19 concerns, Burns said.

He believes casinos out west will be the first to re-open their doors since the spread of the virus appears to be slowing there first and that could provide a blueprint on the future of gaming for those in Ontario, such as Caesars Windsor.

It’s not just casinos, but the future of the entire hospitality sector involving restaurants, hotels, concerts or annual conferences are all up in the air, he said.

“This is going to take a while until we see customers feeling comfortable again coming out,” Burns said. “The businesses are closed right now, but there are still bills to be paid and many are trying to support employee benefits. The longer this goes, the steeper the hill will be on the other side.

“Nobody envisioned this scenario. There will be a new normal and big challenges for our industry. This is a big deal for many communities. Casinos are big employers in a lot of communities with the type of jobs you can not replace.”

dbattagello@postmedia.com