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NM’s 5 racinos ask the governor for permission to reopen

Horse racing has been going on all summer with no fans or onsite bettors in the stands. This file image shows jockey Ken Tohill passing the finish line at Sunland Park racetrack in 2004. (Richard Pipes/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The state’s five racetrack casinos are asking Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to allow them to reopen at 50% capacity while complying with COVID-19 protocols.

The racinos – casinos that operate in tandem with horse racing tracks – have been closed under the state’s public health order issued in March. The state’s tribal casinos closed voluntarily in March, but some have now reopened.

“We respectfully implore you to consider allowing New Mexico’s commercial racetrack casinos to reopen our doors in a limited capacity,” the letter from the general managers of the racinos in Albuquerque, Farmington, Ruidoso, Sunland Park and Hobbs said.

They said 889 gaming facilities are open in 43 states, including Colorado, New York, Nevada and New Jersey.

The governor’s press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, said in response to a Journal inquiry that, “The situation remains that public health conditions will determine when it is safe to move forward with a limited reopening of those entities.”

Meyers Sackett said the administration has been in regular contact with the non-tribal casinos.

As far as tribal casinos reopening, she said, they have the autonomy to open, but “that doesn’t necessarily make opening a safe decision at this time.”

In the Albuquerque area, tribal casinos Isleta and Route 66 are back in operation with safety measures, such as mask requirements and plexiglass barriers to ensure social distancing, while Santa Ana and Sandia remain closed.

The racetrack general managers in their letter said the racetrack casinos are significant contributors to the state’s economy in paying gaming taxes, gross receipts taxes and as employers. The letter says the combined economic impact of tribal casinos and racetrack casinos is $2.2 billion and 17,400 jobs.

The racetrack casinos first proposed detailed safety protocols to the governor in late May.

Among them:

• Limiting occupancy to 50%, including employees.

• Requiring patrons and employees to wear masks.

• Providing masks to employees and patrons, while maintaining physical distancing and/or plexiglass dividers to separate patrons at slot machines.

Patrons and employees would have their temperatures taken on arrival, and employees would use separate entrances from patrons. Anyone (guests or employees) with a temperature above 100.4 degrees would be turned away with instructions to see their doctor.

The letter said patrons could use player cards and or swipe identification cards when entering to enhance contact tracing, and it provided detailed protocols for food service areas.

The tone of the letter to the governor was conciliatory.

“We continue to applaud your ongoing effort to address the consequences of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on the citizens and state of New Mexico,” the letter states. “Your leadership is critical to not only save lives, but also preserve the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of New Mexicans across our great state.”

While horse racing has been conducted over the summer at Ruidoso Downs and the Downs at Albuquerque, there have been no bettors in the stands.

Twenty percent of the net win (money taken in from gamblers minus their winnings) at the racetrack casinos is dedicated to the purses for horseracing. An additional 26% is paid to the state. Other expenses, such as salaries, come out of what’s left.

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