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Sahara slapped with regulatory complaint on coronavirus safety

Updated August 5, 2020 - 6:53 pm

Sahara Las Vegas is the first Strip — and Southern Nevada — property to receive a regulatory complaint related to coronavirus safety protocols.

The state Gaming Control Board issued the complaint against the Sahara Wednesday, alleging the Strip resort failed to comply with social distancing requirements per Gov. Steve Sisolak’s emergency health and safety orders after the property reopened in June.

The Nevada Gaming Commission, which has the final say, could impose a fine, suspend or revoke a license of any licensee that fails to comply with a statute or regulation.

Sisolak has issued several executive orders restricting casino operations since March 17 and the Control Board has crafted policies limiting large crowds and requiring social distancing and the wearing of masks by casino employees and customers in an effort to control the spread of COVID-19.

The two-count complaint, signed by board members Monday, details the resort’s hosting of a lunch event of more than the allowed 50 participants as well as a failure to enforce social distancing requirements at table games and slot machines.

Sahara officials acknowledged and corrected the problems, the complaint said.

Sahara statement

In a statement issued by a company spokesperson, the Sahara did not indicate whether it would challenge the complaint when it is heard by the Gaming Commission.

“We take our duties as a licensed gaming operator very seriously and work continuously to adhere to the health and safety standards set forth by the governor and Nevada Gaming Commission,” Sahara officials said in the statement.

“As stated in the Nevada Gaming Control Board filing, we acknowledged and immediately corrected conditions related to state-mandated social distancing protocols inside the resort identified shortly after reopening in June. Prior to that, we worked with health experts to develop our own stringent health and sanitation protocols through our Sahara Cares program,” the statement said.

In the complaint, the Control Board cited four incidents — three of them occurring June 16 — in which Control Board agents observed violations.

On June 16, a board agent said he observed four Sahara patrons standing along the side of a craps table, but only three actually playing. That constituted a violation of the Control Board’s social distancing policy in casinos.

On the same date, an agent observed a similar occurrence at a blackjack table. According to the complaint, a casino patron was standing between two seated players, violating the policy of three players to a table with spacing in between chairs.

And also on June 16, an agent observed five people standing around a slot machine played by a sixth person, which also violated social distancing rules.

Lunch attended by 135

The fourth incident occurred July 23 when the Sahara permitted a local trade organization to stage a luncheon in Sahara’s Congo Conference Rooms at which an estimated 135 persons attended. The Control Board’s rules follow state government policy and say gatherings should have a maximum of 50 people in attendance.

The case against the Sahara was the fifth formal complaint filed by the Control Board. The other four are against smaller properties in rural Nevada.

Last week, the Control Board announced that there were 156 active investigations underway resulting from 10,135 agent inspections and observations involving noncompliance with the state’s health and safety policies.

Anthony Cabot, a distinguished fellow in gaming law at UNLV’s William S. Boyd School of Law, said the lunch gathering on July 23 is particularly troubling.

“In this case, the allegation of hosting a 135-person gathering, if proven, is troubling and likely the motivation for the complaint,” Cabot said in an email. “If this was an intentional violation, I suspect that the penalties could be severe. A large fine is likely and a suspension is possible.”

Cabot said casino companies should perceive any notices as warnings to improve compliance efforts and recognize that repeat violations could lead to disciplinary action.

“No casino can police the social distancing mandates with 100 percent efficiency and the Gaming Control Board is unlikely to expect that,” Cabot said. “Nevertheless, the board should expect all casino licensees to take extraordinary efforts to meet all pandemic orders and directives.”

More filings possible

Two gaming industry analysts based in Las Vegas said the regulators were right to step in to protect the industry and that they wouldn’t be surprised to see more cases filed.

“I don’t know what the end result of this particular complaint will be but it certainly puts everyone on notice,” said Nehme Abouzeid, president and founder of LaunchVegas LLC, a professional services firm.

Brendan Bussmann, director of government affairs for Global Market Advisors LLC, said he expects the Sahara case to be the first of many in Las Vegas.

“It’s uncharted territory,” he said. “That’s why you want to make sure that any action that the board does need to take becomes uniform across all operators and that you take that into account, which is why we may see more actions like this coming in the next few days.”

Last week, the board announced it is investigating 156 cases of noncompliance revealed through 10,135 inspections.

Contact Richard N. Velotta at rvelotta@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @RickVelotta on Twitter.

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