FORT WILLIAM FIRST NATION — Mountain Bingo on Fort William First Nation has found an innovative way to circumvent the COVID-19 pandemic.
Months after the Ontario government shut down casinos and bingo operations, about 120 bingo players gathered Tuesday night in Mountain Bingo's parking lot off Anemki Drive.
It was the first of a twice-weekly series of bingos conducted with the authorization of the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario.
Manager Cheryl Szyja, counting about 60 cars in the parking lot – most carrying two or three people – was overwhelmed by the turnout on opening night.
"I'm amazed. I'm blessed that my patrons just want to come back," Szyja said. "We're just trying to offer something to people that really miss coming out, playing bingo and doing something."
While players scan their cards in the comfort of their vehicles, the bingo caller remains inside the hall, from where the action is livestreamed on Facebook.
As might be expected with a new system, a couple of glitches developed.
"There's lags and stuff that we are working through. But everyone here is very patient. I appreciate that, because it's new to us, too," Szyja said.
When players fill a card, they honk the car horn to signal a bingo, then hold a flag out the window.
Szyja explained "Then my worker knows where to go to get your bingo. They walkie-talkie the number back to the caller, and he puts it on the board and it shows the actual card."
Before COVID-19 arrived, Mountain Bingo normally had 23 games each night.
For now, the drive-in version will have 12 games each on Tuesday and Thursday, starting at 7 p.m..
Szyja plans to have speakers set up in the parking lot this Thursday, so if there's a problem with streaming, players will still be able to hear the bingo caller.
"It's a learning curve. We'll go with the flow, and we'll do our best to accommodate what we can," she said.