Loosening of restrictions is not enough to get all gamblers back inside a casino
When casinos reopened almost a year ago following the initial lockdown, strong measures were put in place to avoid Covid-19 outbreaks and to follow state or local guidelines. Some of the measures included temperature checks at the door; mandatory mask wearing; social distancing (which included closing every other slot machine, as well as limiting seats at card tables); constant cleaning of surfaces, cards, dice and machines; plexiglass shields between the dealers and players; hand sanitizing stations throughout the casino and capacity limits. These rules were followed pretty much until the last month or two when some states began removing Covid requirements, saying that more than half the population has received at least one Covid shot and over 30% of the population are fully vaccinated, so the danger is gone. There has been talk about requiring proof of vaccination to enter the casinos, but most states and casinos have nixed that idea, saying it would be too difficult to monitor and enforce and that they don't want unvaccinated patrons, and particularly high rollers, feeling unwelcome. There is still no firm consensus on shows and dining options at the casinos, although it appears buffets are still very few and far between. Other traditional Democrat states, like New York, California and Delaware, are keeping all restrictions in place for now until they are given the all-clear to remove restrictions, per the CDC and state assemblies.
Despite many states, including Nevada, working to lift all restrictions, attendance at most casinos is still much lower than pre-pandemic levels. Many analysts attribute that to travel restrictions in other countries that still exist, but other sources such as health officials attribute the decline to hesitancy from many Americans to go into a physical casino, since they are leery of the virus. While Covid-19 cases are falling, it is still not eradicated and many fear catching Covid or a variant from unvaccinated people in the casino or because they can't get vaccinated themselves for medical or religious reasons. Online casinos are also becoming more popular. Consequently, it has been reported that some people who have been going to casinos with the restrictions in place have said they will not go to a casino after restrictions are lifted, opting to play online instead.
Covid Safe Areas
For that reason, reports are swirling that many casinos, including some of the biggest casino companies, are thinking of instituting "Covid safe" areas of the casino, where all restrictions will be maintained, and those sections will be cordoned off from the rest of the casino that are operating as normal. According to sources, casinos are considering three separate areas in the casino.
The first area will be casinos that are operating as they were pre-pandemic with no distancing, no requirement for proof of vaccination, no additional precautions and with full drink and food service. The second area will be one where only people with proof of full vaccination will be allowed, thereby satisfying all patrons in that area that everyone in that section has received both doses (or one shot of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), which will make them feel more at ease. The third area will be one that will maintain all the restrictions that were implemented during the height of the pandemic, including mandatory mask wearing, temperature checks upon entering, social distancing and frequent cleaning of cards and machines. Reports seem to indicate that those sections will be relatively small compared to the areas with no restrictions and may even have higher minimum wagering requirements to justify the restrictions, but the idea is to make everyone comfortable in returning to the casinos, based on their personal risk assessment. One casino manager said that almost every casino that allows smoking in the United States has a non-smoking section and this section may be designated as the "Covid safe" area since the ban on smoking is an anti-Covid measure.
I spoke with one casino operator in New Jersey who said this is being discussed seriously in their state and that they are considering even having separate kiosks in the Covid safe area to allow patrons there to wager on sports rather than sitting in a crowded sportsbook. He said it would be similar to a teller at a racetrack or an off-track gambling parlor. Moreover, he said that there would likely be a dining option strictly for that Covid safe area that will offer take out pre-packaged food that can be eaten outdoors or perhaps in a socially distanced section of the casino. He also said they are considering extra ventilation options, including perhaps windows that allow fresh air to come into the casino, although the logistics of that in many casinos may be challenging. He said he doesn’t foresee any changes to the hotels, although improvements made to cleaning and disinfecting common areas will continue anyways as a standard procedure because people now expect that. Ironically, a problem with bed bugs, which were becoming a serious issue before the pandemic, seems to have resolved itself. Casino hotels in many states that were having bug issues appear to have rectified the situation. Whether it's lack of patrons, better cleaning and disinfecting, more constant changing of bedding or perhaps the lack of food being brought to rooms, the issue seems to be mostly resolved.
Global Casino Outlook
While many U.S. states seems adamant to return to normal operations at any cost, other countries are being far more cautious. Canada, France and Australia haven't opened any casinos since the start of the pandemic, despite having far fewer cases than the U.S.; the UK only opened casinos on Monday with restrictions like mask wearing and social distancing in place; Monte Carlo, which has seen next to no cases, really never closed, but has maintained all restrictions to stop any Covid outbreaks; and last month Macao announced that all restrictions that have been mandated from February of 2020, like obligatory mask wearing, social distancing, temperature checks and even a 14 day quarantine when entering or leaving the country will stay in place. This is all despite next to no reported cases in the Chinese protectorate and in spite of the fact that China hasn't recorded a single case in the Southern region of the country for months.
I asked an industry analyst why he believed states were so anxious to operate without restrictions and he replied as follows: "Unlike other countries where politicians of different parties generally try to work together for the public good, in the United States, it’s all partisan politics. Every decision is made based on re-election chances and screwing over the other party. Unfortunately, many states view Covid restrictions as a Democrat decision, so governors like Greg Abbott (TX), Ron DeSantis (FL) and Doug Ducey (AZ) feel that as long as restrictions are in place, they are helping Joe Biden's popularity. I have no doubt that some of those governors would welcome a new Covid outbreak so they can blame it on Biden and say that his push for vaccinations and restrictions didn't work. I think many Republican governors and other state officials also blame the pandemic for Donald Trump’s loss in the last election, so they view any Covid measures as a sort of evil that derailed their king. Of course, the CDC has also said that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear masks outdoors or social distance, but I don’t believe even they would condone what some governors are suggesting and making it a crime if a casino wants to take extra precautions in their establishments for whatever reason.”
So, what is the immediate future of land-based casino gambling in the United States?
The answer seems to depend on which state we are discussing. As of May 19th, 276 million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine have been given to Americans and 38% of the population are fully vaccinated, so it seems that many states have declared the pandemic over and are returning to normal. Florida, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, Iowa, Oklahoma and South Dakota have lifted all Covid measures at casinos, while the remaining states, including Nevada and New Jersey still have social distancing requirements and/or mask wearing requirements in place. Nevertheless, if a casino in Las Vegas can prove that 80% of staff are fully vaccinated, they can lift all restrictions. The United States is the only country even considering operating casinos without restrictions until the pandemic is eradicated, but as the analyst said, in the U.S. everything is political.
The decision of how to proceed within the casino will ultimately be up to the casino companies themselves, unless a governor mandates otherwise, and it appears that many casino companies, including some of the largest ones, are prepared to designate a portion of the casino as Covid safe areas, even if the CDC and state lifts all restrictions because it makes business sense. While governors like Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott somehow view taking Covid precautions as treasonous, all that matters to the casinos are the patrons themselves, many of whom want to feel safe before returning to the machines or tables. In any case there is no doubt that every gambler wants to get back to the good old days when they could leave the casino broke, but content . . . and maskless.