WELCH -- For longtime employees of Treasure Island Casino & Resort, it was an eerie feeling when the noise of the slot machines, the splashing in the water park, the constant motion of people moving through the parking lot, the hallways, and the gaming floor all came to a halt on March 17.

“I’ve been here 27 years,” said Darrell Breuer, director of support services, “and the only time I’ve ever seen the place closed was on Christmas Eve, and we don’t even do that anymore.”

With the arrival of COVID-19, the management team faced some difficult decisions. On Friday, March 13, they had to discuss the possibility of canceling the Foreigner concert, a type of decision that they rarely have to make. By the following Tuesday, they were looking at shutting down the casino and canceling multiple entertainment shows.

Masks are required for all guests and employees except when they are eating or drinking.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Masks are required for all guests and employees except when they are eating or drinking. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

“We had a conversation on Friday night about putting in safety measures with the crowds coming in, but by the next morning, we regrouped and very quickly came to the realization that the landscape had changed in just 12 hours,” said Angie O’Neill, director of advertising and brand communications.

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While few people in the world planned for a global epidemic, the management team at Treasure Island had looked at other possible tragedies such as flooding, a nuclear disaster, or an accident involving the railroad that might block access to and from the island.

“Over the years, we’ve had a history of being proactive in a hazards approach,” said Dan Johnson, director of security. “Businesses like ours need to look at what are the plausible scenarios that you really have to plan for, and as you see an emerging threat, can you take something off the shelf that is most relevant and apply it?”

Director of finances and interim general manager Mike Heavner said that the closure was difficult for everyone, but as soon as it was made the management team began planning for a reopening. O’Neill said they had initially planned for a two-week closing, but the shutdown ended up being more than two months.

While the shutdown created economic impacts, it also caused problems for the expansive complex itself.

“Buildings operate more efficiently when they are operating the way they were designed,” Breuer said. “We have 900 rooms, and all of a sudden, you take that away. We’ve still got the boiler pushing hot water, but we weren’t using any of that hot water, so our efficiency goes way down.”

Breuer said pipes that were normally full and expanded, then contracted. Pumps that sat empty had O-rings dry out and crack. Both caused leaks. Swimming pools full of water had to be treated even though no one was using them. Freezers full of food had to be dealt with.

“People think you turn the heat off and walk away,” Breuer said. “It’s not that simple.”

Many changes like additional plexiglass through the building help promote a safe and healthy environment for Treasure Island employees and guests. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
Many changes like additional plexiglass through the building help promote a safe and healthy environment for Treasure Island employees and guests. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia

Even though Treasure Island Casino & Resort managers were prepared for emergencies, the shutdown caused them to reevaluate their practices.

“It was a complete transformation of the way we do business,” Heavner said. “Every division had to do their research and come up with the changes they needed to make.”

Visitors today see the changes as soon as they arrive. Valet drivers are no longer getting in cars to park them, but are using golf carts to pick people up in the parking lot and deliver them to the door. Inside the entrances, every employee and guest stands in front of a thermal scanning machine to check for fever before they are allowed to enter.

Every other slot machine is turned off and the chairs for those machines are removed to keep players separated. Gaming tables are limited to three players, and masks are worn throughout the building. The hotel will be operating at a maximum of 300 rooms for the foreseeable future.

To help guests maintain distance, Treasure Island Resort & Casino turned every other slot machine off and removed the chairs.  Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
To help guests maintain distance, Treasure Island Resort & Casino turned every other slot machine off and removed the chairs. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multimedia
“The other thing that we implemented is the clean team,” O’Neill said. “We repurposed people that worked in areas that aren’t open and some additional team members, and we have them going around and cleaning surfaces, slot machines, making sure that everything is clean.”

Guests can request "on-demand cleaning," which the casino management noted was a first in the industry.

Johnson said everyone had to increase their medical aware

Travis Partington, who works with the Treasure Island's Clean Team, sanitizes slot machines between guests on Aug. 26, 2020. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multmedia
Travis Partington, who works with the Treasure Island's Clean Team, sanitizes slot machines between guests on Aug. 26, 2020. Steve Gardiner / RiverTown Multmedia
ness to make sure that team members and guests were all showing up and staying healthy.

“If the team member base is not healthy, it impacts our ability to sustain our operations and ultimately what we can provide to the community,” he said. “All these parts add up to the whole and what we can do to keep this place healthy.”

Reopening the casino has required a strong level of teamwork, according to Heavner. With a crew that has a history of working together to organize concerts with 15,000 people in attendance, he said the same teamwork and culture translated well into dealing with the pandemic.

The closing and reopening of Treasure Island Casino & Resort has been very personal for many people in the community, according to O’Neill.

“We feel like a family here. It is not just employer and employee,” she said. “We have 77 people who have been here over 25 years. We have 94 people who have been here over 20 years. There is a lot of longevity here. It is more than a workplace for a lot of people. It is more like a second home.”