Council vote leaves Casino Annex free to keep games going

Sunday 24th May 2020

On the same day the Saracen Casino Annex reopened, the Pine Bluff City Council debated a resolution asking it to close for another month.

But the resolution received little support from the City Council on Monday night. It lost 3-5.

Council Member Ivan Whitfield sponsored the resolution, which would have directed Mayor Shirley Washington to contact the management of the annex and request that it delay opening until June 18.

Whitfield, Bruce Lockett and Lloyd Holcomb Jr. voted in favor of the resolution. Joni Alexander, Glen Brown Jr., Donald Hatchett, Steven Mays and Win Trafford voted against.

By the time the council met Monday, the casino annex had been open for nearly eight hours, having opened its doors at 10 a.m. Restrictions on operating hours, limits on capacity, and requirements for social distancing, personal protective equipment and sanitizing protocols had been implemented after approval from the state Health Department.

Those measures were contained in a detailed, 34-page health and sanitation plan that was submitted to the state for review and approval.

Whitfield explained his reasoning behind the resolution, expressing fear that a new spike of covid-19 infections could hit the city in coming days as more businesses open and more people begin moving about.

"The bottom line is to protect and promote the public health of our citizens," he said. "I just think it's going to be a terrible, terrible day a few weeks from now. I hope not, but I think we'll be allowing it to happen if we vote against this."

Brown questioned whether the council had the authority to make the request.

"We have the authority to ask," Whitfield responded. "This doesn't say we're pulling the plug. When people come to Pine Bluff, it's always a partnership, that's what people tell us. Well, if we're in a partnership, we should be able to ask certain things of our other partners."

He said it would be up to the casino management whether to honor the request, stressing that it would be voluntary.

"By asking, we can look at our citizens and say we tried our best not to create a hot spot in our community," Whitfield added.

"I'm just asking if we have the authority to do that," Brown countered, "as far as singling out that one particular business to not open when other businesses are allowed to operate."

City Attorney Althea Hadden-Scott told the council that it can legally make the request but that is the limit of its authority.

"It's the governor that controls this," she said. "Even when this pandemic first began, mayors were trying to close businesses and the governor made it clear that mayors do not have that authority."

Washington said West Memphis Mayor Marco McClendon had unsuccessfully argued to have the opening of Southland Casino in West Memphis delayed until June 1 out of fears that people traveling from neighboring Tennessee would bring the virus with them.

"Marco McClendon really pressed hard to keep his from opening down at West Memphis," Washington said. "He was concerned about the people coming across the state lines into Arkansas and the governor knew this, but the governor made the final decision for all three casinos to open on May 18."

"I don't care what the governor says," said Lockett, voicing his support for the resolution. "It don't make common sense to open these casinos, so anybody I'm related to, I'm advising them not to go."

Casino officials declined to release attendance numbers Monday, but Carlton Saffa, project manager for Saracen Development, said the opening was successful.

"I can say we saw hundreds and hundreds in the door Monday and at opening we had socially distanced lines awaiting entry," Saffa said.

SundayMonday on 05/24/2020

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