While some casinos in Ontario are reopening this morning, the doors remain locked at Casino Rama.
However, the operator of the gambling facility east of Orillia received some good news recently.
On Friday, Gateway Casinos and Entertainment became the first Canadian employer to receive a loan from the Canada Enterprise Emergency Funding Corp. (CEEFC) under its Large Employer Emergency Financing Facility (LEEFF).
The agreement provides Gateway with access to $200 million of liquidity.
“These funds will provide us with capital to support restarting our operations and returning people back to work when it is safe and viable to do so,” Gateway CEO Tony Santo said in an email to employees.
He noted the pandemic “hit our employees and their families and communities hard” and said the company is “appreciative of the LEEFF program.”
He said the loan is a shot of good news amid months of dire news.
“Back in the spring, we believed that this shutdown would be for a few weeks,” said Santo of the government shutdown of casinos on March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“However, we have now seen that the closure has lasted far longer and there is continued uncertainty about how long the shutdowns will stretch.”
That uncertainty has been taxing for employees, says Corey Dalton, president of Unifor Local 1090, which represents employees at Casino Rama and Gateway Casino in Innisfil.
“After being off of work for more than six months, all of our casino members are struggling financially at this point,” Dalton told OrilliaMatters.
Unifor Local 1090 and Gateway recently negotiated an agreement that extended health benefits for unionized employees until the end of September, he said.
The new LEEFF funding prompted Gateway to extend benefits for all members until Oct. 31, at which point they will review benefits again.
“We are extremely grateful and applaud Gateway for this decision,” said Dalton.
Another key component of the agreement included the opportunity for members to enrol in a "paid inactive leave" program that would provide members with ongoing financial support through the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program.
“The paid inactive leave program has been very beneficial for a large amount of our members,” said Dalton. “Unfortunately, this program was scheduled to expire on Sept. 26. Late last week, the federal government indicated that they would be extending CEWS into 2021. We now anxiously await important details from the federal government on the extension and any limitations the program may have.”
Dalton said employees are eager to get back to work. An August poll of members concluded 70% of unionized Casino Rama employees were "comfortable to return to work if safety precautions are implemented."
Dalton said provincial regulations handcuff casino operations.
“The Ontario government has placed extensive restrictions on casinos,” he said, noting table games are currently prohibited from reopening and all casinos are limited to a maximum of 50 guests.
“Both the Union and the employer have asked the Ontario government to review this cap,” said Dalton.
“Local 1090 maintains a strong belief that the guest-limit needs to be proportionate to the physical size of each casino. Casino Rama has one of the largest gaming floors in Ontario in terms of square footage - there is an ability for Gateway to provide safe, physical distancing for a larger number of patrons than other facilities which can be 20% (or even less) of the square footage,” Dalton explained.
Santo agreed, saying the “50-customer capacity limit ... makes reopening very challenging.”
Santo said they “have developed extensive health and safety plans corporately and for each of our sites. These plans include two metres physical distancing, the installation of Plexiglas for areas of frequent employee/guest interactions, rigorous cleaning measures and the mandatory use of masks or face coverings for all individuals entering the gaming sites.
“Our health and safety standards have been reviewed by external subject matter experts and they have been proven to be successful through the re-opening of select food and beverage outlets across the company,” he said.
“Despite our detailed plans that well exceed the protocols and oversight in every other area of the economy, there is no sound science to support why we are not allowed to open while big-box stores, restaurants and gyms are allowed to re-open,” Santo explained.
“We operate in a highly regulated sector and are already accustomed to following government-mandated parameters," noted Santo. "We have complete confidence that our operations and our employees can safely and successfully operate under these added health and safety protocols.”
He said Gateway is “continuing to appeal to the appropriate government agencies in all provinces to allow us to re-open our operations in a safe and viable way.”
At 10 a.m. this morning, the 11 properties operated by Great Canadian Gaming Corporation (GCGC) re-opened. At each of these sites, guests are required to reserve a two-hour gaming time-slot.
Caesars Windsor will be re-opening on Oct. 8 by invitation only. All other Ontario casinos remain closed.