Coronavirus Florida: Casino remains open despite visit from COVID-19 victim who died

Tuesday 17th March 2020

One day after it was revealed that a man who died of coronavirus over the weekend had recently spent time at the Seminole Casino Hotel in Immokalee, at least a few hundred people spent the day gambling at one of the few local entertainment venues still open during the COVID-19 global pandemic.

Seminole Gaming leaders say they're taking steps to protect customers from the virus, which has infected at least 192 people in Florida. More than a quarter of those, 49, had neither traveled nor had known contact with another person infected with the virus, according to the state Department of Health's Tuesday update.

Casino leaders have turned off many slot machines and are limiting the number of players at gaming tables to increase space between players, Gary Bitner, a spokesman for Seminole Gaming, said Tuesday.

"It's essentially established a wider distance between players to promote that social distancing factor, which is meaningful," Bitner said.

'He told me he knew he was dying': Lee County man who died of COVID-19 was a 'homebody' who hadn't travelede

All of the casino's concerts and shows are also postponed until mid-April, according to a news release.

Casino leaders announced the policy updates on Tuesday, one day after the Naples Daily News and The News-Press reported that John Gness, 77, a part-time Lee County resident who died of coronavirus over the weekend, had recently spent time at the casino.

His daughter, Lori Hannaford, said Tuesday that she believes Gness was last at the casino on Tuesday, March 3. She said he typically went on Tuesdays between 4 p.m. and 5 p.m. and played video poker games.

Bitner said casino leaders are trying to determine if surveillance video still exists from that date so they can see where Gness was playing and who he interacted with. Bitner said all of the machines in the casino have been cleaned multiple times since Gness was there.

"The physical impact of him being there I don't think is as critical an issue at this point as is the potential for people to know they were in close proximity," Bitner said.

Coronavirus in Florida updates: Confirmed cases up to 192 in state, six deaths reported

State and federal leaders have urged people to avoid congregating in groups larger than 10 people. Even though hundreds of people were in the casino Tuesday, they were not packed in close together. Bitner said that "the social distancing efforts that have been put in place do comply with the requests that have been made."

Hannaford said her dad also likely spent time at the nearby Tice and The Shores Moose Lodge 1297 before he died. The lodge was closed Monday and will remain closed for at least two weeks, according to the lodge's administrator.

In addition to putting more space between customers and canceling shows, the staff at the Immokalee casino are disinfecting common spaces more frequently, including slot machines and gaming tables; they're making hand sanitizer available in all common areas and making disinfectant wipes available upon request, and they're eliminating self-service utensils at all buffets.

Customers who visited the casino on Tuesday said they weren't concerned about the virus.

Many of the customers were elderly, a group at a higher risk. One man walked around the casino with a mask on his face and blue rubber gloves on his hands.

When asked why he and his wife were visiting the casino Tuesday, John Wild, 82, said, "Because we enjoy it."

"And we're tired of staying at home," said his wife, Gert, 80.

The Wilds live in Des Moines, Iowa, and winter in North Fort Myers. They come to Southwest Florida to watch Boston Red Sox spring training games. They said there is no point in staying here if there's nothing to do. Their community's jacuzzi was even closed Tuesday because of the virus.

John Wild said visiting the casino "is not scaring me."

"At my age, I want to do what I want to do when I want to do it," he said. "If something happens, it happens."

Rich Hull, 59, spent Tuesday afternoon playing penny slot machines at the casino. It's not how he intended to spend the tail end of his two-week spring vacation to Florida. But it was something to do.

"I'm pretty healthy. I wash my hands all the time," said Hull, a truck driver from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, who came to Florida with his girlfriend to attend Daytona Bike Week and visit friends in Fort Myers.

Hull said he and his girlfriend intended to stay at the casino for a couple of hours.

"As long as somebody's not breathing on you ... I don't see a big problem," he said.

Hull has visited the Immokalee casino before and said it is normally much busier.

"Usually every seat is taken during the day," he said. "Usually it's packed all day long."

While the Immokalee casino is staying open for now, the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing and Poker planned to close its poker room indefinitely after Tuesday night, said general manager Juan Fra. They're also canceling all of their promotions that draw crowds.

The track will continue to race greyhounds every day at noon, and again at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, Fra said.

"We're keeping two floors open so people can practice social distancing," he said. "We don't get big crowds for racing anymore."

Fra said his team is monitoring all the directives from government leaders.

"We're trying to keep the dogs going. It gives people a little choice for entertainment," he said, adding, "We're trying to keep people safe."


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