Cities with casinos seek help from county

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By Alfredo Santana

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — City officials from Commerce, Bell Gardens and Hawaiian Gardens are urging county health officials to repeal an emergency order to close casinos and card rooms as coronavirus transmissions rage out of control, and painted a stark economic outlook as the lack of revenues from the venues has forced layoffs and slashed services.

Casinos and card rooms were forced to close for three weeks starting Nov. 29, following revised L.A. County’s Health Department rules to contain the recent wave of coronavirus cases that threaten to saturate regional hospitals with newly infected patients.

L.A County Public Health Department Director Barbara Ferrer instructed the Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens and the Commerce Casino to stop conducting outdoor business until Dec. 21. Local officials blamed the county for a short-sighted approach that endangers thousands of jobs of blue collar residents and critical tax revenues for cash-strapped cities.   

Last month, Ferrer issued the directive for card rooms to comply with a non-essential business curfew from 10 p.m., to 5 a.m. until Dec. 21, following a second wave spike in COVID-19 cases. She also prohibited restaurants from serving outdoor meals.

“We are concerned with the actions that [the Department of Public Heath] has taken given that card rooms, playgrounds and restaurants have not been identified as major sources of virus spread unlike private gatherings, which are a major source of infection that public health has completely failed to address,” Commerce City Manager Edgar Cisneros said in an email.

The Commerce Casino and Plaza Hotel was closed from March 19 to June 5, along with the Citadel Mall, leaving  the city of Commerce without its biggest revenue producers and a projected loss of $13.5 million. The hotel and casino contribute 40% of the city’s revenue. The casino reopened Oct. 5 to serve poker players in two tents built on its parking lot.

“This isn’t only about the closure of the card room, which has devastated our city’s finances, but about the services we are able to provide our residents and the lack of effective public health policies emerging from the [Department of Public Health],” Cisneros said.

At a press conference Nov. 30 in the empty outdoor gambling grounds of the Commerce Casino, Bell Gardens Mayor Alejandra Cortez decried the county’s measures that punish the largest employers in the two cities.

Cortez said Bell Gardens lost about 50% of its income following the Bicycle Casino’s closure, and said it was unfair to single out employers that provide good salaries for both local residents and people living in neighboring communities.

Cortez said the casino shutdown has cost the city $9 million, and noticed the card room contributes $15 million in revenue a year.

“While the card room is closed, our residents are out of work and the city has adopted a critical stream of tax revenue,” Cortez said. “We have already eliminated office positions, reduced employee salaries and reduced services for children and members of our community. “

Cortez asked county leaders to take into account their say on how to combat the coronavirus spread, because nobody has stepped up to bail out cities with substantial revenue losses.

“As city leaders, it is extremely frustrating not to be part of the decision-making process when it comes to direct revenues sources for our city,” Cortez said. “Not only revenue sources, but also direct employment for many of our families.”

After officials in the three cities complained to the county in September, the county Board of Supervisors and Health Department regulators allowed the casinos to reopen Oct. 5, provided the gaming tables were outdoor and no food or drinks were served, requiring card players to wear masks at all times.

The seven casinos operating in L.A. County are subject to state and county health protocols requiring patrons to wear masks, keep tables at six feet of distance between them, temperature intake of customers before being seated, and disinfecting germs from partitions whenever someone leaves the premises.

The last two months security guards screened visitors at the entrance of each casino for chills, fever, flu and coughing. Patrons had to visit designated areas if they wanted to eat.

The county’s health mandates are stricter than those of the state for card rooms. Gov. Gavin Newsom has not issued an executive order targeting closures at outdoor gambling tables and casinos at press time.

Hobbled by receding revenues, Commerce Mayor Ivan Altamirano asked the county to let casinos reopen for the wellbeing of the cities.

“I’m here to ask the supervisors to work with our cities in order to save and keep the casinos open,” Altamirano said. “[The Commerce Casino] has spent over $1 million to keep clients safe. Its closure has impacted our communities. We have furloughed over 200 employees already,” Altamirano added. “If this continues we’ll face negative impacts. We are losing revenues. Shutting down the casino is like shutting down the city of Commerce.”

Altamirano invited area leaders to form a coalition and work in unison to study the creation of their own health department.

He commended county supervisors and health experts for making tough decisions in times of crisis, but warned them to “keep us in the light, and don’t keep us in the dark. Work with us in partnership and together we will move forward.”

The Commerce Casino posted on Facebook that it recently finished flooring a section of the outdoor gaming area, composed of a giant aluminum tent that housed 60 tables, each with seven plexiglass dividers. The venue plans to overhaul more than 150 tables and install them under the canopy for the scheduled Dec. 21 reopening.

The calls for the county to cancel cardroom closures arrive on the heels of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s new restrictions on community outings, travel and personal shopping to maintain enough hospital beds for all patientis as COVID-19 cases mount this fall.

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