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Bingo companies will likely welcome the news, given considerable losses for their physical halls.
Buzz Bingo announced it would have to shut 26 of its halls due to COVID-19 earlier this year, cutting hundreds of jobs.
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Even those locations which did manage to stay open have suffered from decreased footfall due to new measures.
The firm, which employs 3,400 people, has experienced the same knock-on effect as the rest of the hospitality and entertainment industry, according to its chief executive, Chris Matthews.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include additional comments and reflect that some halls have decided not to reopen in light of the city’s guidance.
After being closed for weeks, bingo halls are hoping for a big payout as they partially reopen across the Fort Worth area Friday amid the coronavirus outbreak.
But they’re risking their luck, because the city of Fort Worth says bingo halls are not part of the first phase of businesses allowed to open their doors and it will investigate those that do.
Starting Friday, restaurants, retail stores, movie theaters, malls, libraries and museums can begin operating at 25% capacity as part of a phased reopening of Texas businesses that Gov. Greg Abbott announced Monday. Some Fort Worth business owners said they’re reopening out of necessity — a day after Texas reported a single-day high of 50 COVID-19 related deaths and 1,033 new cases.
Abbott’s executive order also explicitly notes that “interactive amusement venues such as bowling alleys and video arcades” are still prohibited from opening in the first phase. But bingo hall owners argue they don’t fall within that category.
Cathy Anderson, the owner of Town and Country Bingo off of Jacksboro Highway, said she spoke with people who had been in contact with the governor’s office, “and I was told that we do have the OK to open.” Anderson declined to provide more details on who she had spoken with.
“We were considered to be under entertainment. They’re opening movie theaters — entertainment,” Anderson said Thursday. “So we fall underneath the entertainment (category), which is also non-essential retailers.”
However, Anderson said Friday afternoon that she would not be opening Town and Country Bingo like she’d planned to after hearing bingo halls were closing their doors in light of the city’s guidance.
“Everybody’s really disappointed, but everybody understands. Something that a lot of us have been looking forward to is getting back to seeing everybody,” Anderson said Friday.
City officials have taken different stances, and whether bingo halls can reopen may depend on where they’re located.
Wyndie Turpen, the superintendent of consumer health for the City of Fort Worth, which is acting as the enforcement arm for businesses amid the pandemic, wrote in an email Thursday that the city identifies bingo halls as amusement centers.
“At this time, they are prohibited from opening. The city’s Code Compliance Department, Consumer Health Division will investigate the bingo halls,” Turpen wrote.
Diane Covey, a spokeswoman for the department’s Consumer Health Division, wrote in an email Friday afternoon that the division has since contacted every bingo hall in Fort Worth and educated them on the guidelines in place.
“No bingo hall has been cited or closed at this time,” Covey said.
But Fort Worth bingo halls said they had no other option but to close after hearing from the city.
“They are giving us no choice at the moment,” Lone Star Bingo in Fort Worth wrote in a Facebook message Friday afternoon.
However, Michael Gunderson, the acting city manager for the city of Everman, wrote in an email Friday that the city believes bingo halls fall under the category of retail businesses, and “will be permitted to open accordingly.”
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In an email Friday, Robert Parker, the chief of police for the Watauga Police Department, referred questions to the Governor’s Office and Texas Lottery Commission, “as the City of Watauga is not the appropriate organization to interpret the latest order for that specific business.”
It’s unclear if bingo halls have been given guidance from the state permitting them to reopen. The Texas Lottery Commission’s website for charitable bingo says organizations should contact local officials “before making plans to reopen bingo halls,” and encourages them to refer to the executive order and a report from the governor’s “Strike Force to Open Texas” that includes detailed guidance for how to safely reopen.
In an email Friday, Lauren Callahan, a spokeswoman for the Texas Lottery Commission, reiterated those guidelines, and said that, “whether a bingo hall is eligible to reopen under Phase One of the Governor’s Executive Order to reopen the Texas economy is not within the purview of the Texas Lottery Commission.”
Abbott’s executive order supersedes local ones, and both Fort Worth and Tarrant County allowed their local stay-at-home orders to expire or mirror Abbott’s in order to not create any conflict. A spokesman for the governor did not immediately return requests for comment Thursday.
In an email Friday afternoon, Kayleigh Date, a spokeswoman for the Attorney General’s Office, pointed to a Thursday letter issued by the AG’s Office that notes that, “local governments are prohibited from allowing businesses to reopen unless they are recognized as essential or reopened services under the Governor’s order.”
Bingo halls are not explicitly mentioned in Abbott’s executive order or the strike force’s report.
Taking precautions to reopen
Bingo hall patrons tend to skew older, and Anderson said that for many of her older customers, bingo halls are like a second family. But those 65 years and older are also at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and developing complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
With the state’s stay-at-home order expiring, Abbott had urged elderly Texans to continue to stay home as much as possible. And the strike force’s report notes that 76% of 305 deaths through April 26 were Texans 65 and older.
“People are starting to get so excited that they’re going to get to see their family and their friends, because a lot of the people that come in here are elderly,” Anderson said. “Most of them, this is their family. A lot of them lost loved ones in the past, and this is who they consider to be their family now.”
And even with the 25% occupancy limit, many bingo halls’ capacities are so large they could still allow over 100 people inside. At Town and Country Bingo, their normal seating capacity is 475, Anderson said, leaving roughly 118 people allowed in at 25% capacity.
Bingo halls said they’re taking extra precautions to ensure social distancing measures are followed. Masks, gloves and hand sanitizer will be available, in addition to limiting admission to a first come, first serve basis.
Before she had heard from the city, Anderson said customers were going to be asked to wear masks, only one to two people would be seated at each table and all the chairs, tables and counters were going be sanitized and cleaned.
A phone recording Thursday night said to customers who call Texas Bingo: “Hey good news, Texas Bingo Haltom City and Texas Bingoplex Fort Worth are back open effective May 1st.”
The halls’ website outlines a long list of rules customers must abide by, and says that if players are displaying any symptoms related to COVID-19, they’ll be asked to leave. Markers will be laid out stipulating how far apart players must be, and a worker will be greeting customers with hand sanitizer as they enter the hall, according to their website.
“We will not tolerate cutting ahead in lines or NOT maintaining a 6-foot separation when waiting to purchase your bingo products,” their website notes.
According to a Thursday post on its Facebook page, Five Star Bingo had planned to be open seven days a week, and Lone Star Bingo was planning on being open six. Its page had not been updated Friday afternoon to reflect that it would no longer be reopening in light of the city’s guidance.
When reached Thursday night, Diana Ford, an usher for Lone Star Bingo, said she was going through the books to call customers and let them know they’d be reopening Friday. Customers temperatures were going to be taken, and chairs had already been stacked against the walls to limit the number of seats available, Ford said.
Ford said they’ve been in limbo since closing on March 18. She planned on wearing a mask at work, but said she was nervous about bringing the virus home to her 83-year-old mother.
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“For me, I think if I got sick I would probably recover. But my concern is going home to her and then exposing her,” Ford said.
But Ford hasn’t yet received her unemployment benefits, and she doesn’t want to leave her employer “stuck between a rock and a hard place either” with fewer employees available to work.
Watauga Road Bingo posted on its Facebook page that it will be open Friday night. Its announcement was met with mixed messages in the comments — with some Facebook users expressing excitement while others were more hesitant.
Everman Bingo also announced on Facebook it would be open, and stressed customers can’t rearrange chairs, and that face coverings need to be worn.
“We are very happy to be back. Can’t wait to see everyone. But we all must follow the rules to STAY open. Hopefully this is VERY temporary,” the post read.
But not every hall has chosen to open its doors. Noon and Pioneer Bingo in Arlington posted on its Facebook page Thursday night that its aiming to return during the second phase of business reopenings in late May.
Burleson Bingo posted on its Facebook page Thursday that while its delighted to hear local businesses will be reopening, it does not have a set date when it might.
“We will continue to cooperate with local officials and reopen as soon as we are allowed and it is safe to do so,” the post reads.
On Thursday, Anderson had said wouldn’t feud with the city if they told her to shut down.
“I welcome them to come in and let us know. The earlier the better,” Anderson said. “And I will do what the city says, because part of following the law is doing what the city says, not just what the governor says.”
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