For over a year, casinos in Colorado have been on pause.
Not like when you were a kid and paused the Super Nintendo to go outside and play with your friends.
Or had to pause the movie playing on your VCR. Remember those?
This pause is out of the casino’s control.
And it’s been indefinite.
Though there have been moments when casinos have “returned,” it’s nothing like before COVID-19.
For the casino workers and patrons alike, there were different levels of frustration.
Most likely wondered, “When will this finally end so we can go back to normal?”
For last week at least, “normal” finally returned.
Here’s a first-hand account of the light at the end of this dark tunnel finally coming into sight.
Colorado casinos return to “normal?”
As I pulled into Black Hawk on a beautiful spring afternoon, I had no clue what was about to hit me.
Sure it was a Saturday, but would people feel comfortable enough to show up?
But as my wife and I pulled into the parking garage at this particular casino, we kept driving up the winding driveway in search of an empty parking spot.
“This place is packed,” I thought to myself, a bit surprised.
When we finally found a parking spot on an upper level and began our search for the hotel’s check-in desk, we were smacked with more proof this wasn’t going to be like last year.
There was actually a line to get into the casino and hotel.
After we checked in and wandered the casino floor, we were stuck by yet more proof: the slot machines and table games were packed and it wasn’t even dark yet.
Fast-forward about two hours.
Our first step outside to head to our dinner reservation was nothing like the warm sunny day a few hours ago when we arrived. A snowstorm was about to hit, and I could feel it in the air.
No matter how long you live in Colorado, the brisk wind and sudden drop in temperature makes your bones shiver.
Still, nothing could have prepared us for what was to come 10 minutes later.
The casino floor was packed.
We’re talking pre-COVID packed.
Slot machines and table games were ringing with life and filled with hopeful gamblers.
If not for the masks, you would never know there was a pandemic. No doubt, it was a little unnerving.
To the credit of the gamblers and the casinos, people were wearing masks and doing their best to socially distance.
Restaurants required reservations to allow proper spacing for guests.
So that piece of mind was a nice addition.
Over the course of the meal as our server offered insight on the crowds, the pieces of the puzzle began coming together.
People had received their stimulus checks.
People had gotten their COVID vaccines.
The weather was ideal following a historic blizzard that caused widespread power outages and dumped more than a foot of snow the week before.
It was spring break.
March Madness betting had begun and sportsbooks were now here.
Perfect storm of events
Towards the end of our meal, I asked our server how the last week compared with the last year.
“It’s as crazy as I can remember. It’s been a while since I was running around like this.”
For the first time in a year, it was the perfect storm of money and opportunity.
But was this just a fluke week, or is the tide finally turning for casinos?
As Kevin Dawn, the Barstool Sportsbook director at the Ameristar, told PlayColorado:
“It was a good weekend. It was the best non-football weekend we have ever had here in the sportsbook. I think your assessment of all of the reasons why business was good are accurate. I know that some people also got their tax refunds. People are itching to get out and March Madness is a great social event.
“As far as the tide turning, not sure we are there yet, but we are seeing a glimmer of light at the end of a long dark tunnel. I am excited to see what next year will bring to the opening weekend of March Madness if we don’t have restrictions in place any longer.”
Eased pandemic restrictions help casinos rebound
With my suspicions confirmed, I wanted to get a feel for just how good the weekend was for casinos and sportsbooks.
However, the state only gets monthly reports from casinos.
So we’ll have to wait for the black-and-white numbers for even more proof of how good the week of March 14-20 really was.
Still, it’s a great sign.
As Dan Hartman, the director for the Colorado Division of Gaming, said:
“With the reintroduction of table games and as we are beginning to see the loosening of restrictions, everyone is excited to see the casinos returning to a pre-COVID atmosphere.”
For David Farahi and the Monarch Casino Resort, it’s the added punch of just-released renovations opened to the public that contributed to their great week.
“We have been overwhelmed by the positive response from our guests as they visit our new resort for the first time,” the COO for Monarch said. “The almost instant popularity of all three of our new restaurants, world-class spa and resort rooms has been well beyond our expectations.”
Will the trend stick?
People don’t need a reminder of how dark and difficult the last year has been.
But for the first time, an emotion that has been all too absent seems to be returning — hope.
As Eric Rose, vice president of operations for Century Casinos in Central City and Cripple Creek, said:
“Yes, you are correct — last weekend, Friday and Saturday — felt like the good ole days. We believe this trend will continue for the next couple of months, and this summer should be back to ‘normal’ with even better business volumes than 2019 pre-COVID.”