By Bill Finley
The Oaklawn Park casino has been given the green light by Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson to resume operations May 18. During his press briefing May 7, Hutchinson announced that the state's three casinos can reopen, but only at one-third capacity and that stringent social distancing requirements will be in place.
Oaklawn's casino has been closed since Mar. 16 and the shutdown had started to affect purses. Under the worst-case scenario, the casino would be closed for an extended period of time and purses would have to be reduced at the 2021 Oaklawn meet. The race meet at Oaklawn was completed May 2 without interruption.
“While we are excited that Governor Hutchinson has given Oaklawn the green light to open Mar. 18, there will be strict protocols which need to be implemented, first. Once we have those in place, we can start adding to next year's purses by opening,” Oaklawn President Louis Cella said.
Trainer Ron Moquett, who is a member of the Arkansas HBPA Board of Directors, said that even though the number of gamblers who can go to the casino will be limited, its opening was an important step.
“This means there is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said. “It doesn't have to get back to where we were overnight. Our industry depends on a lot of things, including clients and owners buying horses for the next year, hoping there is going to be racing. When there is nothing happening and everything is stagnant, it doesn't entice a lot of people to invest a lot of money. The casino doesn't have to go full steam, but it's important that people see that things are starting to get back to normal. Being open at one-third capacity is not what everyone ultimately wants, but it is a start.”
The Oaklawn casino will be among the first to reopen since the coronavirus pandemic began. A tribal casino in Idaho resumed operations May 1, becoming the first U.S. casino to start up again.
Hutchinson said that the state will continue to work with the casinos on how best to manage a situation where the coronavirus is still a threat. Hutchinson added that Dr. Nate Smith, secretary of the Arkansas Department of Health, has “worked very hard, we've all worked hard” with the casinos as they sought to reopen. In other states, the casino industry has put forth social distancing plans that include closing every other slot machine and putting up plexiglass barriers at the gaming tables to separate the players and the dealers from one another. The casinos will not be able to operate around the clock and will instead close at night to allow for additional cleaning.
“Oaklawn is a mainstay of our tourism product here, so it's very welcomed news and I can't wait for the 18th to get here,” Visit Hot Springs CEO Steve Arrison told the Hot Springs Sentinel-Record.
The state's other casinos are in Pine Bluff and at the greyhound track in West Memphis.