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Don't Play So Close to Me

As increasing efforts to restart businesses and the economy run parallel to vaccination campaigns, some places are using touchless solutions that will allow them to scale for whatever happens next.

In the U.S. state of Oklahoma, while state, local, and tribal governments have been relaxing some COVID-19 mandates, Cherokee Nation Entertainment’s casinos have similarly been rolling back their restrictions. The company runs 10 casinos throughout northeast Oklahoma, and according to Donald Childers, vice president of surveillance and loss prevention, more people in the region are willing to venture out to entertainment venues.

“We are seeing a nice, steady increase over the past couple of months of people wanting to come back out and enjoy those amenities,” Childers says. And while the casinos’ pandemic protocols are shifting with the reopening, he adds that the goal is to promote a sense of safety—as well as confidence in the facilities.

The car itself provided the barrier and the means to maintain distance from everyone else.

When they began preparing to reopen, Childers and others looked at what other casinos and gaming facilities were doing to achieve the same goal. Many were relying on temperature screenings held outside a facility. However, Childers wanted to shift away from having potential guests walk up and cluster around screening points.

Childers was worried that such screening stations, even outside, would not encourage social distancing, with long lines or clusters of guests potentially resulting in spreading the COVID-19 virus. “That concerned us,” Childers says, adding that enforcing social distancing outside of the facility seemed at odds with providing excellent customer service.

Along with the taxing possibility of a virus hotspot, Childers also noticed that such stations did not afford much privacy for their guests.

So instead, the casinos set up drive-thru screening stations, similar to (and inspired by) health departments’ and hospitals’ COVID-19 testing sites. The company bought tents large enough to allow pickups and SUVs to drive underneath, and it provided screeners with water and nearby cooling stations to keep staff safe and comfortable.

Guests would drive up and remain in their vehicle while a staff member asked screening questions and took the temperature of everyone in the vehicle. If guests did not present with an elevated temperature, they were allowed to park and enter the casino. Screened and approved guests were issued colored wristbands to wear while on the property, with different colors used every day.

Childers adds that the drive-thrus also protect employees, who might otherwise have to get close to crowding guests while screening.

“Everybody is already contained in their vehicle, so long as the screener is wearing PPE and…that is the limited amount of exposure that we have, so long as (they follow) proper protocols or procedures that our health agencies have given us, the risk to the screeners was minimal,” Childers says. “The car itself provided the barrier and the means to maintain distance from everyone else.”

Cherokee Nation Entertainment issued screeners handheld thermometers, and anyone who might be involved with screening was trained on how to use them and how to deal with guests. Beyond the technical training of using the temperature readers, they were also trained to observe any additional signs of infection, such as a guest sweating or straining to speak.

Understanding that in warmer weather or if a guest had been sitting in a car with the heat blasting, anyone presenting with an elevated temperature would be redirected to a waiting area for the chance to cool down before a second temperature reading was administered.

Like everybody else, we’re getting to where we believe we know how to operate with it.

After reopening the casinos and setting up the drive-thrus, pandemic protocols for the casinos were scaled up or down depending on the level of active cases in their respective areas. If numbers were trending down, a casino would not require temperature checks; however, screening staff would always ask COVID-19 screening questions and be able to scale protocols back up if necessary since the casinos purchased the tents instead of renting them.

Childers says that in all of this, customer service was an ever-present element. Driving into screening stations eliminates the biggest concern guests indicated in conversations or questionnaires regarding what would bring them back to the casinos: while guests expected or even wanted a screening procedure, they did not want to stand in line. Also, members of screening teams were coached in staff training on how to respond if someone presented with symptoms indicative of COVID-19.

Guests’ responses to the outdoor screening set up have been positive, according to Childers.

For the Angel of the Winds Casino in Arlington, Washington, reopening for increasing numbers of guests involved practices that have become ubiquitous—social distancing and sanitization.

“Like everybody else, we’re getting to where we believe we know how to operate with it,” says Derk Boss, CPP, director of surveillance at Angel of the Winds.

Boss says the casino, like others, focused on decontamination, spacing concerns, and temperature readings. Initially, they considered thermal surveillance cameras, but, unsurprisingly, they were in short supply—as well as expensive.

Instead of installing the cameras throughout the entire gaming floor, the security team selected a few for certain entrances. However, the winning solution for the casino was installing check-in kiosks inside the casino, but before entering the main floor.

Incoming guests approach the kiosk, which is equipped with a thermal reader. The process, which can take five to 10 seconds, includes a digital temperature reading and scanning the guest’s ID.

While guests do not have to touch the kiosks, Boss notes that a staff or security presence nearby has helped this aspect of the check-in process. Staff assist guests who might need assistance or are less tech-savvy, supervise the kiosks, and enforce use for those who might try to walk past the check-in stations altogether.

Who would have ever thought that the surveillance team that traditionally looked for cheaters or bad guys of all sorts...would be looking at cleaning practices?

Boss adds that there has not been much pushback on the new check-in format. Instead, like for other businesses, the area that has seen the greatest unfavorable response is face masks. And with a large percentage of their guests being elderly and therefore more vulnerable to COVID-19, monitoring and enforcing mask-wearing through surveillance became a new practice for Boss’ security team.

“People come in and they get very comfortable and pretty soon the mask is down,” Boss says. “We have to actively go after that.”

Along with mask enforcement, security cameras at Angel of the Winds are now used to ensure that employees are adhering to sanitation protocols—making sure that everything that is touched gets wiped down. Staff responsible for sanitizing areas may use ionic devices that disinfect surfaces without touching them.

“Who would have ever thought that the surveillance team that traditionally looked for cheaters or bad guys of all sorts...would be looking at cleaning practices?” Boss asks. “But that’s necessary.”

Cameras are replacing other hands-on practices, including keeping tabs on occupancy levels within the facilities. With social distancing and occupancy now mandated by local governments for both fire safety and health concerns, the casino’s cameras are outfitted with artificial intelligence software that tracks how many people are in the facilities at any given time.

The casino previously relied on handheld counters, but the cameras help the casino know and prove to authorities that it remains within a given capacity limit. Boss notes that this feature is something the casino will keep even if all other pandemic measures are phased out.

Sara Mosqueda is associate editor at Security Management. Connect with her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter: @ximenawrites.