California Card Rooms Pitch Outdoor Tents

The iconic San Bruno card room Artichoke Joe’s has seen a lot of history in its 104 years, including its fair share of disasters. Now, with the smoke of nearby Northern California wildfires turning the sky red and the continuing coronavirus threat, the card room is opening outdoors—the only operations Sacramento officials will allow right now.

The theory is that the open-air casinos have less risk of spreading the Covid-19 infection, and operators can easily put more space between people and tables.

“We’ve survived earthquakes and floods, but nothing of this severity, nothing like this Covid stuff,” Vince DeFriese, president of the casino, told GGB News.

The casino made the move on the advice of city officials. “The San Bruno city manager and mayor called me to ask, ‘Why aren’t you going outdoors?’ Before that, I would have laughed at that suggestion.”

It wasn’t a simple proposition. “I had the fire marshal involved. There were fire code issues. The building department and the police chief were involved. We’ve had all the powers that be in San Bruno bless us and also followed guidelines of the county of San Mateo. The rules are the same as outdoor dining guidelines. Our governor, everybody has their foot in this situation.”

Artichoke Joe’s reopened Friday, September 3 at 6 p.m. under a 12,800-square-foot tent (80 feet long by 160 feet wide). The card room currently has 32 tables, each 10 feet to 12 feet apart, and is in the process of adding five more to allow Texas Hold’em poker.

“Our big challenge was trying to open poker, because of the requirements for social distancing,” said DeFriese. “The other games use partitions we call ‘the bubbles’ to protect players. But for poker, we had a hard time, because they play against each other with eight or nine players. We’re having to manufacture sneeze-guards that will let us seat eight players comfortably, so they don’t feel like they’re in sardine cans.”

Run by the Sammut family, Artichoke Joe’s started in 1916 as a poker parlor. The property is now working with a local sheet metal shop to create the clear partitions. “When we started, it was trial and error— making them and tweaking them.”

It’s the same table layout—no modifications there. “But we’re losing spots,” said DeFriese. “Three-card poker would have eight spots, and we’ve cut down to seven. With baccarat, we’ve cut to four or five players. One of the biggest hits we took is no backline betting. Patrons like to wander and stand behind players and make bets. They hear the noise and the excitement and wander over to place a bet. We had to limit that, and that’s a major hit.”

In some cases, the rules of the Gambling Control Commission contradict OSHA guidelines, “for instance, on how often you should sanitize chips,” DeFriese said. “We’re following the strictest guidelines to protect ourselves.”

Maintaining a safe social distance between players takes constant supervision, he added. “There are signs on the tables, but if by nature you want to look at a game, you’ll try. We have to discourage that.”

Even outdoors, there are many more sanitation requirements to be observed. “A player gets up, and we have someone right behind them, sanitizing their spot,” said DeFriese. “We clean the chips and the playing cards. In some games, they don’t touch the cards, but we still change out the cards every four hours.”

So far, the biggest crowd the card room has hosted was 250 people, but it can safely accommodate 300. “We’re actually counting to make sure,” DeFriese said. “There’s no rule for 50 percent or whatever, but we’re taking it on our own to make sure we don’t have congregating. We haven’t had a problem so far.”

The great majority of employees at Artichoke Joe’s are back to work—390 of 425 workers, not including 100 “bankers,” the third-party providers required at California card rooms.

Alcohol sales aren’t allowed, and players can’t drink or eat at the tables. But all games have returned except Texas Hold’em, and that’s in the works.

“Over 100 years, and whoever thought we’d be doing this today?” DeFriese asked. “We definitely have challenges with the hot and cold weather. We invested in jackets for the dealers.” Referring to the wildfires, he said, “We’re adapting to the smoke. There’s a lot of wind here, too. We’re watching the wind very closely.”

Other card clubs in Northern California are adopting the open-air casino model because they must, after seven months of being closed. Thirty-seven miles away, San Jose city officials just gave permission for the Bay 101 Casino and Casino M8trix to operate outside under a new program.

The city calls it Al Fresco.

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