Harrah's Southern California Casino

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Friday, September 4, 2020

By Camille von Kaenel / inewsource, Jennifer Bowman / inewsource

Photo by Zoë Meyers / inewsource

Above: Harrah's Resort Southern California in Valley Center is shown on Sept. 3, 2020. A former executive is suing Harrah's over the casino's reopening.

A top executive at Harrah’s Resort Southern California who quit the day before the casino reopened is suing his former employer, claiming he was forced to resign after management ignored his concerns that the decision was dangerous and could expose visitors to COVID-19.

Darrell Pilant, the Valley Center casino’s former general manager and senior vice president, filed the lawsuit against Caesars Entertainment Inc. in San Diego Superior Court on Monday. He alleges the company’s decision to reopen in May resulted in “serious adverse health and safety consequences involving employees and customers contracting COVID-19.”

Aired 9/4/20 on KPBS News

Listen to this story by Camille von Kaenel of iNewsource.

San Diego County confirmed to inewsource this week that 217 local residents who have contracted COVID-19 reported being at a casino within two weeks of becoming ill. Twelve of the people were hospitalized and one, a casino patron, died.

The cases are tied to seven of the county’s nine tribal casinos and involve 76 employees and 141 guests, county spokesperson Sarah Sweeney said. She noted that even though those who tested positive visited a casino during their potential exposure period, it doesn’t mean they contracted the coronavirus there.

The county has refused to name specific businesses where outbreaks have occurred, including casinos.

The Rincon Band of the Luiseño Indians owns the Valley Center casino. It uses the resort’s revenue to fund tribal government services for its more than 500 members and 5,000-acre reservation. The tribe contracts with Las Vegas-based Caesars Entertainment, the largest gaming company in the U.S.

Tribal casinos are on sovereign land, meaning they don’t fall under the jurisdiction of state or local health officials. When they reopened after a roughly two-month closure, many other businesses in the county remained closed.

Like the other casinos, Harrah’s reopening plan includes requirements for face coverings, social distancing and increased sanitation.

Bo Mazzetti, chairman of the Rincon Band, said in a recent newsletter that the tribe “literally took the lead” to coordinate with other tribes and government officials for reopening.

“Rincon’s position was that someone had to take charge and do something for Indian tribes and reservations throughout the state,” he wrote in the newsletter.

Gov. Gavin Newsom and local health officials opposed the decision to reopen. In a letter to tribal leaders, Newsom said he understands casinos are crucial to funding their government services. But, he wrote, “I cannot stress enough that the risk of COVID-19 transmission remains a serious threat for all Californians.”

In his lawsuit, Pilant claims he was repeatedly assured that Newsom and the county were “on board” with reopening. Despite Pilant’s repeated concerns to management about health and safety risks, he said the company gave him an “illegal and dangerous” directive to lead the reopening.

He called it “a matter of ‘right and wrong’ and what Caesars was doing was wrong.” His last day at work was May 21, a day before Harrah’s reopened the casino’s doors.

Pilant’s suit argues he was “constructively terminated” and under his contract is eligible for severance equal to a year’s worth of his salary, a figure that was not included in court documents. He’s also seeking unspecified damages.

He declined to comment when reached by inewsource. Pilant’s attorney, Anthony Pantoni, did not respond to phone calls or emails.

A nearly 23-year employee of Caesars Entertainment, Pilant had held positions with the company in other states before coming to Harrah’s Resort Southern California in 2011. He was promoted to general manager in 2016, overseeing all casino operations.

Pilant serves on several community boards, including the Palomar Health Foundation and the San Diego Food Bank.

The Rincon Band, which through a spokesperson declined to comment for this story, citing the litigation, is not named as a defendant. Mazzetti is quoted in an Aug. 26 news story in the Valley Roadrunner saying no COVID-19 cases have been identified at the resort or on the reservation.

A Caesars Entertainment spokesperson for the Rincon property did not respond to phone calls and emails from inewsource.

Casinos in the county did not respond to inquiries from inewsource seeking their case numbers. An official from the Sycuan Band of Kumeyaay Nation, which owns the Sycuan CasinoResort in East County, has previously confirmed the casino worked with the county to investigate cases involving those who tested positive for COVID-19.

The pandemic is a “fluid situation” for casinos, Eddie Ilko, Sycuan’s safety manager, told inewsource.

The casino has already made some changes to its safety measures since reopening, said Ilko, who also is chairman of the National Indian Casino Safety Association. Sycuan has banned smoking in certain parts of the resort, required face masks more robust than bandanas and gaiters and added employees to enforce policies.

“We had to learn on the fly,” Ilko said. “This was something new for everybody.”

The casino has also added surveillance resources, he said, to track people’s movements who are later found to have tested positive. This makes it easier to alert guests or workers who were within six feet of those infected with the virus.

Sweeney said the county works closely with tribal health authorities on individual cases and contact investigations but “has not made any definitive connection between any casino employee and a patron.”

Still, county officials say visiting a casino puts a person at higher risk for contracting COVID-19 and have “repeatedly commented that going to a casino is not essential,” Sweeney said in an email.

Casinos Near Harrah's Southern California

“Those who do go are encouraged to review the precautions that the casino is taking to prevent illness,” she said.

Harrah's Southern California Casino Floor Plan

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California casinos are not what they seem. If you are new to California and have previously only experienced Atlantic City or Las Vegas style casinos, you will be surprised to learn about all of the new rules and formats at the majority of casinos here. Harrah’s Resort Southern California is in the minority when it comes to CA casinos, since it is almost the same as all major Las Vegas destinations. Other than a few small game differences, your general experience will be just about the same.

The resort itself is located in a somewhat desolate area that you will arrive at by driving up 12 miles of windy roads. Surprisingly, there are several other casinos in the nearby area, including Pala Casino, Pauma Casino, Valley View Casino, and Pechanga Casino. Each of these properties are located several miles from one another, but they are all within a roughly 20 minute drive. The area is able to sustain such a large casino industry because of its proximity to San Diego. Needless to say, Rincon is among the most popular in this area.

Casino at Harrah’s Southern California

The casino at Harrah’s SoCal is very modern and refined. When compared to just about any other Caesars Entertainment property, this one stands out in a very positive way. Unfortunately, over the years the majority of CET properties have steadily declined in just about every way possible. Harrah’s Southern California, however, is both newer and was also recently remodeled. When you walk in, you will feel like it is a brand new resort, and for all intents and purposes, it just about is.

Craps and Roulette at Harrah’s Rincon

The games available at Harrah’s Rincon are not limited, and include everything you would find at any major casino. With that said, there are some caveats worth mentioning. Even on Indian land as is the case with this casino, California laws prohibit the use of balls and dice in their games. For this reason, craps and roulette have significant tweaks. The craps tables allow dice to be thrown, but the result is then used to correlate with playing cards that are placed on the numbers to determine winners and losers. For a craps player, this is likely to become quite boring and annoying. You will not usually hear loud ruckus coming from Harrah’s Southern California craps tables like you would expect from other casinos.

Roulette works with a similar workaround to that of craps in order to circumvent the very odd California laws in place. Instead of a ball being rolled and landing on a number, the roulette wheel is spun and slaps playing cards one by one. You place your bet according to which one you think will be the final “slapped” card rather than where a ball will land. The roulette games is effectively the same thing as what you would find in other casinos, but if you are used to traditional roulette, it could certainly come off as very odd, because, well, it is.

Slot Machines at Harrah’s Rincon

There is an ample supply of slot machines at this casino and they make up the majority of the floor. The repeat clientele seems to primarily frequent these machines, and they cover around 80% of the floor as a whole. Even with this large number of games to choose from, on busy weekends, you may find it tough to get on a game. There is a video poker section that is located in the north east section of the casino (if you are entering from the front). The video poker games here do not pay particularly well, with 98% payback generally being the best that is available in the non-high limit sections.

Poker Room at Harrah’s Rincon

A poker room is also in operation at Harrah’s Southern California, but it is rare that more than a few games are running, and when they do, they will be low limits. For the most part, the games running are going to be $1/$2 NLHE and $2/$4 LHE. If you are looking to play higher stakes games in the nearby area, Pechanga will be your best option.

Bars and Dining at Harrah’s Southern California

For the size of the resort, there is a lot to choose from when it comes to bars and dining at Harrah’s SoCal. Everything from low end, late night food like Pink’s Hot Dogs to Fiore Steakhouse and Seafood are available. There is also a buffet that is frequently full, and is located in the dead middle of the casino action to the west side. In addition to these options, there is also a noodle bar named Fortunes and a street taco style restaurant that is named ‘Ritas Cantina. No matter the hour of the day or the type of food you are after, you will be able to find it at Harrah’s Resort Southern California.

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In terms of bars, you will find two different primary destinations. The first bar is located just to the right of the beginning of the main casino floor. This is primarily a video poker bar with a few tables for seating. The video poker tables actually pay fairly since the drinks cannot be comped at this casino due to California laws. This goes for the Diamond Lounge also. Drinks are charged while the food is free. This is unlike Diamond Lounges in the majority of states where unlimited alcohol is included for free.

The other bar is located in the north area of the casino floor and is sports bar oriented. It too is loaded with the same video poker machines. Food can also be ordered at this bar. The bars are about equal in terms of general feel and experience, with no real differences between the two.

Hotel at Harrah’s Southern California

There are 1,065 total rooms at Harrah’s SoCal Resort. These rooms are split into two different towers, north and south, similar to the layout of another Caesars property, Planet Hollywood. In general the rooms are very nice, especially when compared to what you would find at your typical Caesars property. Renovations over the past few years have upgraded the rooms to be higher quality than you would even find in most Las Vegas casinos.

There are a number of upgraded rooms available, though they can be tough to secure since they are not in high supply. If you are a big player and/or reserve your room well in advance, you will have a better chance at landing a suite. These offer balcony’s and other amenities that standard rooms do not have.

Room rates, especially during the week and off season, are very reasonable. If you are visiting during the summer months, however, expect to pay a significant amount for a weekend visit. Since the San Diego weather is perfect for vacationing, the resort is typically jam packed throughout the summer weekends. There is a fitness center located in the lobby area of the hotel, right next to the entrance to the pool. A room key is required for entrance to the gym, and a number of different machines and equipment are available.

Pool at Harrah’s Southern California

The pool and swim up bar at this resort is one of its best selling features, especially during the warmer months of the year. Since Valley Center is located up in the mountains and desert, you will get all of the sun and heat that you can handle. This makes for perfect pool weather, and Harrah’s built a long, windy, lazy river style pool to accommodate. Kids and adults alike will fill the pool areas to the point where it can sometimes be hard to find an open seat.

Harrah's Southern California Casino Furlough Of Employees Program

The pool also offers a swim up bar right across from the lazy river section. During the summer, this is the most popular bar to visit, and they offer a number of unique drinks that you will not find at the bars inside the casino itself. If you are visiting and it is hot outside, we highly recommend checking out the pool, as its usage is included with your stay. If you would like, you can pay an extra charge for a cabana. Food and drinks can also be ordered from servers who are working around the pool area.

Harrah's Southern California Casino Hosts

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