Some California poker rooms open despite COVID-19 shutdown order

Poker writer Geoff Fisk profile photo
Geoff Fisk
Posted on: September 05, 2020 16:51 PDT

Tribal casinos not lawfully obligated to abide by California emergency order

The COVID-19 pandemic hits the live poker industry particularly hard. While most casinos across the country are back in business at limited capacity, poker rooms are still completely shuttered in states like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Michigan.

California hosts one of the most vibrant live poker markets in the U.S. Many of the state's 62 tribal casinos offer live poker, and more than 60 cardrooms operate outside of those tribal properties throughout the state.

Non-essential businesses throughout California were forced to close in mid-March, mirroring the rest of the U.S. as the COVID-19 pandemic hit American shores. The vibrant California poker scene appeared to be back on the rise in mid-June, with iconic cardrooms like the Bicycle Casino and Commerce Casino back in business.

That reopening period proved short-lived, however, as a late-June emergency order issued by California Gov. Gavin Newsom mandated the closure of indoor restaurants, bars, and other non-essential indoor businesses.

California's cardrooms fell under the jurisdiction of that order, and by the beginning of July, the state's 60-plus cardrooms all once again shuttered. Tribal casinos, however, don't have to answer to Gov. Newsom's orders.

As a result, several poker rooms inside tribal casinos are open for business throughout California.

Cardrooms forced to stay closed, while tribal casinos stay open

Tribal and commercial casinos across the U.S. shut down amid the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March. While commercial casinos waited for official state clearance to reopen, tribal casinos had the option to open on their own timeline.

By the time of Gov. Newsom's late-June shutdown order, all of California's 62 tribal casinos were back open for business. None shut down in response to Newsom's order, while cardrooms not falling under tribal ownership were forced to close.

Those cardrooms include venues like the Bicycle, Commerce, and Gardens Casino, three of the world's largest poker rooms and the backbone of the California live poker economy. Northern California cardrooms like Bay 101 also remain closed as of the first week of September.

The California Gaming Association, which represents California's cardrooms, expressed what it feels is an unfair disparity to the San Francisco Chronicle.

"Our position is, if we’re all in this together, we should all be in this together,” Kyle Kirkland, president of the California Gaming Association, said. "The longer some of us stay open, the longer everyone else will have to stay shut down. It seems grossly unfair and counter to the governor’s message."

Ocean's Eleven reopens as an outdoor venue; other cardrooms might follow a similar path

San Diego-area cardroom Ocean's 11 Casino reopened August 28 as an outdoor venue. Located in Oceanside, the popular Southern California cardroom debuted a "5,000 square foot outdoor gaming facility", allowing the poker room to abide by Newsom's shutdown order.

As reported by earlier this week, San Jose cardrooms like Bay 101 and The Casino M8trix might reopen soon as well, under the scope of a larger plan to allow the city's indoor businesses to operate outdoors. Those cardrooms could reopen as part of a proposal labeled "San Jose Al Fresco," with poker tables operating under canopies in open-air outdoor areas.

Oceans's Eleven Casino is entering uncharted territory by going outdoors with live poker, and if the San Jose business plan is any indication the outdoor poker trend might be just getting started in California. A proposal to allow San Jose's pair of cardrooms passed by a 10-1 city council vote earlier this week.

San Jose cardrooms approved for reopening, but date TBA

The actual reopening date of those poker venues depends on how quickly The Casino M8trix and Bay 101 can construct an outdoor setup that meets mandated COVID-19 safety requirements.

Those requirements would include the plexiglass dividers between players and dealers that have become the standard for live poker rooms in 2020. Further restrictions would also include fewer players at each table, increased cleaning and sanitation, and proper entry protocols like body temperature checks at the front door.

San Jose City Council member Johnny Khamis told the San Jose Spotlight that if the cardrooms comply with CDC and city-imposed safety standards, they should be allowed to resume business.

"The card rooms have to spend a lot of money creating a system of cameras and checks and balances outside,” Khamis said. "But if they’re willing to spend all that money to do so, then they should be open."

In the meantime, California poker players have a solid menu of options for live poker at the state's tribal casinos. Some of the tribal casinos with live poker up and running include San Diego's Jamul Casino, Banning's Morongo Casino, and Sacramento's Thunder Valley Casino.