Arkansas to Allow Casinos Open at 1/3 Capacity on May 18

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday that he would lift some COVID-19 restrictions on casinos on May 18. 

He said the casinos could open that day at “one-third capacity with stringent social distancing requirements in place.”

Casino operators are working with Secretary of Health Dr. Nate Smith on how to reopen, and specific state guidance for them will be released late Thursday or Friday, Hutchinson said. 

This is the first phase of a three-phase reopening process. The second phase would further loosen restrictions; the third phase would be a return to pre-pandemic operations for the state’s businesses.

“Our planning for reopening has been focused on a comprehensive program that features additional ways that we will help keep our guests and employees safe from COVID-19 and provide them peace of mind while they are in our facility,” Delaware North, the parent company of Southland Casino Racing, the West Memphis dog track, said in a statement.

Carlton Saffa, project manager for Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff, said the casino’s protocols will include requiring customers to wear masks and to show identification. The overall capacity for Saracen — a smaller annex that only offers slot machines and sports betting while a larger casino is under construction — is a little under 900 people.

“We want to be able to participate in contact tracing if there’s a request from the health department,” Saffa said.

“We’re going to study any spike [in COVID-19 cases] very carefully and so, if there’s a spike that we can identify and we can control it, we can manage it, then that should not detract from our overall objective and direction that we’re going in, in going to phase two and opening up more,” the governor said. 

“We’re going to be able to, through contract tracing, really try to identify where the problem is, get control of it, and make a decision whether we need to ratchet it back,” he said, in response to a question about whether the state would tighten restrictions if the outbreak worsens amid businesses reopening. “The key thing is that we don’t have a resurgence in the next 14 days. We want to be able to move to phase two, and I’m hopeful we’ll be in a position to do that.”

Arkansas has recorded 3,665 COVID-19 cases. Eighty-eight Arkansans have died from the virus; 2,867 have recovered from it.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)