The 12 Coast casinos closed March 16, unsure of what was ahead, and they began reopening at 8 a.m. Thursday with management and customers still not knowing what to expect.
Golden Nugget Biloxi was one of the casinos that opened at 8 a.m., the first time allowed by the Mississippi Gaming Commission. People were already waiting at the door at 5:30 a.m.
“It feels great,” Pat Cress of Ocean Springs said as she came in through the main entrance and gazed around. She and Linda Bailey walked across the Biloxi Bay Bridge, as they typically do, on the way to the casino.
“We’re just going to walk around and look,” Bailey said. They planned to check out their favorite slot machines.
The hotel had opened Wednesday night and Golden Nugget General Manager Chett Harrison said they had around 100 rooms booked.
“The pent-up demand’s there,” he said.
He was encouraged as hundreds of people were in the casino soon after it opened, one man from New Jersey, a woman from Florida among the first customers.
“I think throughout the day it’s going to continue to ramp up and pick up by mid-afternoon, he said.
People were already at the restaurants that were open, while others played the slots. Some of the machines are grouped in pods so people aren’t sitting next to each other. The slot machines in rows have some of the machines turned off to keep the new social distancing regulations from the Mississippi Gaming Commission.
Regulars were the first ones in the door at Palace Casino Biloxi when it opened at 10 a.m. The casino reported that within an hour after opening, a local player won a jackpot of over $90,000. The player, who asked not to be identified, was playing the Dollar Storm Progressive slot machine.
Hard Rock Casino Biloxi was scheduled to open at 11 a.m. Thursday, but general manager Todd Raziano said they opened early. With all the preparations they made for social distancing, he said, the last thing they wanted was a line of people waiting outside.
Thursday had the feel of an opening after a tropical storm, except the staff and about half of the customers were wearing masks.
Joe Billhimer was at Hard Rock for this opening, just as he was as general manager of the resort when Hard Rock officially opened nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane ravaged the resort just days before the original opening date.
“I just wanted to see,” said Billhimer, whose company hasn’t been able to reopen its Maryland casino yet because of the coronavirus, and he has two more casinos coming in Pennsylvania.
“This property looks as good as it did brand new,” Billhimer said of the Hard Rock.
The resort was exceptionally clean, and staff members were wiping down slots, chairs and table games. Hand sanitizer and wipes are available throughout the casino so people can clean their hands and the machines. Masks are available for customers who request them, and a digital thermometer for those who want to check their temperature is available outside Hard Rock Cafe.
The sportsbook is open at Hard Rock Biloxi, although there still isn’t much to bet on. All the restaurants except the buffet are open, and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse opens Friday for the start of the Memorial Day weekend. The swimming pool is open to hotel guests only, and some of the lounge chairs were removed from the pool deck. There’s no live entertainment at the moment, but the salon will open so people can get their hair cut and styled again, Raziano said.
“It’s awesome,” said a Hard Rock regular from Gulfport, who was playing slots and video poker with his wife. “We’ve been bored to death,” he said.
At one point a woman’s screams rang out across the casino floor.
That signaled about the third jackpot of the morning, said Desiree Ducre, regional manager at the Sugar Factory inside Hard Rock. Things have changed there, too. The self-serve candy stack is no longer self-serve.
Hard Rock Cafe had early-lunch customers, and retail manager Mary Harman said they will have a limited menu and will be open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. instead of midnight for now.
She’s hoping to see a good turnout of people over Memorial Day weekend, and judging from the crowds she’s seen on the beach over the past few weekends, she said people are eager to get out.
“We’ve been trough so much planning,” Raziano said. “When they opened today it was a pleasant surprise, he said, that everything went exactly as they hoped.